(UK) Staffordshire and West Midlands – participative research during the study trip
Polish and Lithuanian study trip participants had chosen and discussed their research questions during the preparation phase of the first study trip to Staffordshire and West Midlands regions. Study trip itself proved to be an opportunity to observe, compare contexts and seek answers to the aforementioned questions.
As a result, the participants wrote reports that were later discussed in groups and took important part not only in the research, but also in the evaluation process. Excerpts from the reports are published on this website.
When I met people interested in working as culture animators, it helped me to reflect not so much on how the concept of culture animation is defined generally in Poland and in the Institute of Polish Culture in Warsaw, but it primarily gave me a chance to analyse my own projects in detail and to ponder how I want to understand culture animation. This issue is essential since nowadays there are many parallel concepts put into practice by different schools. Frequently, these concepts are diverse combinations of ideas of participation, local community engagement, art, change, education, and even community research and consultations. However, the components are mixed in various proportions, with some elements overly emphasised and others omitted or considered unimportant in terms of context, such as inspirations drawn from counterculture and anthropology. Coming across such different definitions of the same concept, I face not so much the need to choose one of them but, in fact, if I decide to work in this field, I must face the challenge of creating or, to be more precise, negotiating my own definition constantly. Supposing that no single, undeniable viewpoint exists, I am able to juxtapose continually my assumptions with practice, gradually making them relatively correct and efficient.
Though similar, the results achieved by British Community Artists, Polish culture animators and Lithuanian activists are based on entirely different assumptions, which is caused by the viewpoint and determinants typical of a given country. They are caused not only by the current economic situation and state politics but also by social and historical factors (so varied in the home countries of the study trip participants), the misery index, migration rates and the quality of civil society.
This last concept seems characteristic of my idea of culture animation, which mainly focuses on stimulating activity and participation through creative techniques. It obviously relates to the same notions as Community Arts, namely the local community engagement and the willingness to change, but it primarily aims to develop artistic and active attitudes as well as, however grandiloquent and pedagogic it may sound, education towards freedom.
I perceive education towards freedom in opposition to education towards safety. A free man values self-development and activity over stabilization and the permanence of the world. A man who ignores restrictions, which result from his/her social condition, wealth, background or group pressure, will always try to break an impasse. Educating towards freedom and empowerment are the most difficult tasks that I allocate to culture animation.
Still, the animator’s concept of social change may differ from what freedom turns out to mean to people s/he works with. Like a social researcher whose questions should not suggest answers, animators are supposed to attempt to reach compromises and negotiate meanings, remembering that they may be rewarded for their job and expecting it to be satisfying both in financial and aesthetic terms. It is a difficult and ethically complex issue, handled probably not as well in Poland as in the United Kingdom, where Community Artists are commissioned by local governments to use art and art projects to work with communities that need reinforcement, integration or, to quote an official definition, regeneration. Additionally, conducting art-related community consultations is equally important. Using art projects to obtain research data is one of the greatest inspirations in the field of culture animation that I drew from this project.
The issue of notions and categories being compatible with reality is particularly difficult with regard to such fields as culture animation and comparing it to British Community Arts. The very attempt at comparing the two above terms may result in a dead-end that makes one wonder whether drawing such comparisons makes sense at all.
The notion of culture animation emphasises culture and defines its activities as centred around culture. Meanwhile, Community Arts shifts the focus onto the community and art. These both terms, obviously encompassed by the notion of culture, should be distinguished in order to define this practice in the United Kingdom.
What Community Arts focuses on is the community, with its needs and possibilities. Since Community Artists often work in the field which in Poland could be perceived as artistic, the activities undertaken by Community Artists in Stoke-on-Trent would be also called ‘art’ in Poland, not so much culture animation. A post-industrial city in Staffordshire in the West Midlands, England, Stoke-on-Trent is a home to Staffordshire University, where the Faculty of Art, Media and Design runs a postgraduate course in Community and Participatory Arts. As for the learning and practical experience it offers, the Faculty resembles Polish academies (such as the Academy of Fine Arts and the State Theatre Academy). And here comes an important difference between Polish culture animation and its British counterpart. Culture animation is part of faculties focused purely on theory, for instance Science of Culture/Cultural Studies in the Institute of Polish Culture at the University of Warsaw. Culture animation has its roots in ethnographic movements and an anthropological approach to the notion of community. Meanwhile, Community Arts was initiated by artists, not theorists of culture.
The Polish approach assumes that culture animators often have art-related skills but are not artists themselves. Majority of members of associations that deal with culture animation in Poland have a theoretical background and artistic skills but no previous academic training. While Polish animators frequently act only as middlemen in the exchange between artists and the community, encouraging the community’s creativity through the meeting, British Community Artists are principally artists themselves. In Poland, the term ‘artist’ applies to so-called ‘high art’, so it is difficult to introduce notions such as ‘Community Artist’ (being synonymous with ‘culture animator’). However, if one takes a closer look at the work of Community Artists, it does not differ significantly from the work of culture animators. The British approach is concerned with the process when working with the community, while the Polish approach is not clearly defined yet. For some time, culture animation favoured change, which meant that the animator’s work within a given community was supposed to produce a visible change in its members’ behaviour, relationships, attitudes towards participating in culture and even their financial situation. As for Community Arts, this practice favours process, which is also gradually reflected in the work of Polish culture animators.
In my report, I will discuss the topic of participation, that is a model of involvement, and, in particular, the concept of well-being.
Participation is the implementation of the model of active collaboration while empowering local communities, which makes it possible to take and share decisions that influence the life of social groups. Not merely an idea, direct participation is also the objective of cultural democracy, which opposes the instrumentalisation of cultural activities. Freedom and possibilities of choice shape and develop society. Involvement means collaboration and also an opportunity to express oneself and one’s individuality. This model applies both to a local community and an artist-animator. Having entered a group for some time, the animator gets to know its members and becomes part of their lives. His/her task is to work towards certain solutions (problems) by using art and to show possibilities without imposing them. Owing to this, the experience may turn out to be multidimensional in terms of education, art and society.
An aspect of British Community Arts that remains unusual in the Polish context is the idea of well-being, namely the broadly defined health issue. I was profoundly impressed by the approach to this problem. It is important that many art projects related to this issue are financed (or co-financed) by health departments. In Poland, financing art and health together results mainly in programmes focused on children: from the simplest activities, such as redecorating hospital rooms (to make a hospital stay less stressful), to more complex ones like art therapy (for instance, therapy through theatre).
In the United Kingdom, the health issue is discussed not only in terms of a fit, illness-free body but the emphasis is put on mental health as well, which is related to the notion of creativity, a factor that enhances cognitive development. The main objective is to improve the quality of life in a large number of fields, which is followed by raising social awareness about illnesses by conducting information campaigns and providing medical services. Polish hospitals appear as a hermetically sealed world, filled with suffering people, while old age and illnesses are still considered taboo subjects. One begins their path to health by entering crowded medical centres and waiting in queues of embittered patients. So far, this has remained outside the field of work of a culture animator but perhaps it will change in the future.
Formed at hospitals, care homes and theatres, art therapy groups are provided for people who are sick or coping with social problems (alcoholism, social rejection). An example of such activities during the study trip was Borderlines at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle. The project clearly focuses on those who live on the margin of the community or have been totally rejected, such as people turning to crime, exhibiting anti-social behaviour, excluded from social interaction or involved in social conflict. The therapy-through-theatre method aims to provide them with different, positive ways of understanding oneself and one’s social groups. It is supposed to create affirmative attitudes, which will make it easier to analyse one’s fears and overcome addictions.
In practical terms, Borderlines involves bringing those people back to their lives and reintegrating them into local communities. It shows how important it is to face a problem. It employs various psychological physical activities and drama games. The purpose of activities at the New Vic Theatre was to present their working methods in detail. I found one game particularly unforgettable: players sit round in a circle, with every other chair empty. Those sitting in the chairs are ‘prisoners’, behind whose backs stand the ‘guards’ within reach. The sitting person must run away, while the guard cannot let it happen. The prisoner is an addict and the guard is his/her addiction. The victims try to escape but cannot do it because the addiction will not let them go.
Another integral factor of well-being is the sense of security. In particular, I would like to describe one project that I only read and heard about. It focused on Walsall, a town engulfed by crime and general sense of insecurity, whose residents were afraid of walking outside after dark. A local group decided to spend part of their funds on research to learn what the residents considered important and what they lacked. The conclusions clearly stated that such a heterogeneous community did not feel secure. The Safety Soap Box project was aimed at three groups: young adults, sex workers and local residents. The workshops that used audiovisual techniques were led by artist Kate Green. As a result, apart from strengthening the sense of safety, highly artistic works were created and the participants were trained in the basics of computer design. The project encouraged a climate of open dialogue among members of different social groups, previously divided by contrary interests.
When discussing the subject of well-being, I believe that a project that took place in Stoke-on-Trent must be mentioned. Called Common Ground, the event was organised for Hanley Park and, in my opinion, resembled Polish culture animation projects in form. It focused on the safety issue in the park at night. Additionally, the residents were convinced that the park fell into ruin and wanted to restore it to its former glory since it was a place of historical interest, designed by a renowned architect. The project involved a few installation artworks/art projects that were prepared by local artists. For instance, one of them aimed to use the bandstand that had never functioned as such. The artist invited musicians and decorated the stage with flowers. The site was revived and could finally serve its role. Unfortunately, the memorable concert has been the first and the last so far.
It is also essential that Community Arts practitioners are strongly supported by the government. (At least, they have been. However, the support depends on which political party comes to power.)
The important aspect of Community Arts is the ability to listen and enter proactively into dialogue with a local community. Not necessarily direct, the dialogue is often held by means of culture animation projects. The doubts that residents may harbour are reflected in their works of art. Every final project is preceded by adequate preparations of an artist or institution so that a particular event answers specific needs of social groups. What I like about research is that it does not have to be a dry study but can serve as a model for activities of culture animation.
During the study trip, we witnessed many examples of how communities might be engaged in projects organised by artists and animators. Yet, by providing everybody with access to art, do we really enable people to influence their culture and government? Drawing on the British examples, I still find it difficult to state what the role of art in this process might be. According to Mark Webster, the objective of art is to give people a voice so that their issues and opinions might be heard in a wider forum. The Spoke Up course was an excellent opportunity to observe the involvement of such an institution as a university in promoting civic participation and supporting democratic processes by endorsing local leaders and encouraging activity. As a result, we saw one of the course participants running in the local government election. And yet, art? Does art make a citizen? Can an art project reflect an efficient community consultation?
I think that the results of Community Arts activities can be verified by means of the well-known ladder of participation/empowerment:
Possibly, the first step of such activities would be to identify on which level a local community is located and which level we wish to reach by working on an art project with the community. In general, my question about the influence of Community Arts on participation aims to ask whether art is able to make people independent and empower them, namely transfer them to the top of the ladder.
All these doubts lead to the final thought on the permanence of change. It seems to me that the issue of permanence is generally inherent in all community projects, including the ones presented to us in the UK. I believe it to be the key topic as regards art that is used as a tool to support civic participation and democratic processes: the issue of what stays and what fleets as well as what is visible (sometimes even measurable) and what remains hidden.