Welcome to the third installment of François Matarasso’s virtual residency on my blog. Following on my virtual residency with François earlier this month, I’m hosting our second residency. Between 31 May and 4 June 2020, François is publishing guest posts here, offering a selection of his past writings on art and community that were originally published on his blog, A Restless Art, where you can read more about François’ work and download a free PDF of his book of the same name. Each blogpost is accompanied by a piece of music François has chosen.
On Thursday 4 June at 10 am MDT (9 Pacific, 11 Central, noon Eastern, and 5pm BST) François and I will host an online conversation about a burning question for artists who work in community: how will it be possible to carry meaningful community-based arts work forward if the venues, resources, and the nature of participation are drastically changed? If you would like to join us, please register on Zoom. There is space for up to 100 people.
One thing I really like and admire about François Matarasso’s take on community-based arts work is how alert he is to signs of distortion and co-optation. These are often artifacts of a funding and evaluation system that attempts to slot work that is always emergent, insurgent, and process-oriented into convenient bureaucratic categories. The intention might be efficiency, but the effect is insidious. It’s so important to have voices that insist on the core democratic, just, and loving values of the practice, a reminder of what is most worth preserving and supporting.
As this “virtual residency” has been unfolding, François and I have been commenting on each other’s posts. Yesterday we had a brief dialogue about the importance of community-based arts work as witnessing, especially in these times when the contradictions of our societies are being writ large in violence, suffering, repression, and rebellion. This morning, François (who has multiple blog sites) posted two short essays I want to recommend in addition to the piece below. You’ll find “The Social Justice Case for Diversity” on Parliament of Dreams; and “Witnessing As Resistance” on A Restless Art.
If you’re lonely, I will call –
If you’re poorly, I will send poetry
Billy Bragg, The Milkman of Human Kindness (1983)
I don’t remember when artists began to speak of ‘delivering’ projects, but it may have been around the time when delivery entered the rhetoric of politics. That was worrying in itself – after all, government only talks up its delivery when it knows people aren’t persuaded that it is actually making things better.
Be that as it may, the metaphor has always made me uncomfortable. It imagines participatory art as a package that can be handed over. The artist just needs to turn up ready and equipped to ‘deliver’ the workshop and another box can be ticked. It doesn’t really matter who is being delivered to because delivery is one-sided. Some imagined public good is handed over and signed for. Job done: the commissioner is content.
But the essence of participatory art is co-creation and that is not one-sided. Ideas and imagination, influence and power, authorship, creativity – all shift restlessly between everyone involved. What happens is unpredictable because it emerges from a shared creative process. There is no plan to be delivered, like a lesson with learning outcomes. There is, with luck and a following wind, a creative journey to be shared towards a destination that may turn out to be quite different from the one that was anticipated. All the best results of community art – growth, empowerment, change – come from being together in that journey.
I have never delivered a community art project. I’m not a milkman, quietly placing a healthy pint on stranger’s doorsteps. Community arts does not give you calcium. I want only to share a part of my journey with someone who wants the same.
Billy Bragg, “Days Like These.”