Friday 22 May 2015

Casting stories in plaster - and just hanging around

York Open Studios is a great thing.  I was visiting local artists whose work I had never seen before, and so found myself peering at at the very intriguing cubes of Doug James.  These are bundles of memory, like cubic doll's houses full to bursting with artefacts and words and images, so you want to make yourself tiny and be able to look inside.  Doug saws up old books and cassettes, plasters and sticks and paints and bungs in sweetie wrappers, bits of diary, cinema tickets, everything that helps him tell the story of a particular person, occasion or time period of his life.  Some things cannot be contained in the cube, and spill out like tears or excess.

We immediately realised we were engaged in similar work in different media, so I invited Doug to come and lead a workshop at the adolescent mental health setting where I go every week.  We gathered up swathes of material and worked with five young women all morning.  They were characteristically quick to decide what stories they wanted to tell, whether of their favourite places or of family members, and lateral-thinking about how to use Doug's techniques to do so.  Here are some of the results:

Really this session exemplified for me what I have come to treasure about my current role, particularly in this setting.  I am not engaged in a ten-week project with a particular end date and outputs in mind, but I am a sort of usually welcome hanger-around.  Indeed, I am not just passively welcomed but actively supported in practical ways.  And so a sort of gift-and-opportunity relationship develops, in which little is planned in advance but opportunities are offered and taken up.  An artist is available to work for free - well then I can get him in, will next week be OK?  Materials are required - well then the setting works hard to gather them.  A conference on young people's mental health is coming up - then shall we create a story to put forward the inpatients' perspective?  I won't manage to do all this work with the young people myself - well then the staff find the time to work with them between my visits.  There are some free seats at the theatre tonight - would any of the young people like them? Yes and one of them is interested in work experience at the theatre, could that be arranged?  None of these things could ever have been foreseen at the outset.

My supervisor I recently met with the setting's chief psychiatrist and told him about the organic flourishing and multiplying effect of this work in this setting.  We agreed that it clearly springs from the flexibility my role allows me, along with the setting's responsiveness.  We also recognised that this is an almost unique position these days, like the early days of the community arts movement when pioneering artists simply took up residence in a community.  We explored together whether it would be possible in any form to continue this work beyond my PhD, whether with me or another artist - but it was hard to envisage any such funding model.

Ironically, even the prophets of efficiency in public services might have to admit that this 'hanging around' is an efficient model of funding arts work.  I am free to see opportunities arise and grab them, and the setting responds in kind.  My time, if costed, might come to a couple of thousand pounds a year.  The list of 'outputs' from this couple of £K is certainly longer than it would have been with a more structured project. 

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