A close-up image of a red brick house with a royal blue door next to two trees. The image is abstract and has scribbled on it 'lemon balm', 'motherwort', 'courage', 'voice', 'resilience'.
Motherwort is for Resilience (participatory arts workshop, Heart of Glass, St Helen’s 2018) ©

Chrissie Tiller

In this new blog Chrissie Tiller reflects on socially engaged arts practice, her experience since publishing Power-Up and radical imaginations to build social change.

Across the globe creative practitioners are working with communities to co-create and co-produce. This work cuts across genres and challenges our understanding of the role of arts and culture in society. This blog is part of a series exploring socially engaged practice in the UK and internationally. With writings and provocations from Matt Peacock (With One Voice, Streetwise Opera), Shelagh Wright and Peter Jenkinson (Culture and Conflict), Ruth Gould, and Chrissie Tiller, this blog offers examples and experiences of socially engaged practice, shares ideas, and investigates what it means to create socially engaged art today.

Sharing Power: from participation to collaboration

Maybe because of my recent piece Power Up, and maybe because it seems the whole world is looking to socially engaged arts practice to get us out of the state we’re in, I spend a lot of time at conferences and seminars. No-one likes thinking and speaking about this practice more than I do, so it was with some trepidation that I found myself being a participant again. Taking part in a women-only workshop, led by artists who mostly work with women experiencing violence in the home, I was surprised to find myself so moved and challenged. Although my fellow participants were all thinkers, academics and practitioners attending a conference, through working creatively with herbs and their meanings, we began to share our stories, own our anger and name our insecurities as women in ways none of us had expected. Wrestling to co-create something that captured what we had shared and enabled us to take our ‘changed’ selves back into the world made me think about the ways in which this work opens up spaces. Spaces to listen to each other, care for each other and work collectively to imagine different futures. It also made me think of what this might mean for women for whom, as more and more refuges and shelters are closed down, participatory arts workshops like this are becoming the only safe spaces. 

This workshop took place within an international meeting on collaborative arts practice in Liverpool. In the same week I’d also been speaking with artists working with communities in deprived parts of Tyneside, exploring ways in which participatory arts might contribute to social inclusion with the EU commission and attending a seminar on how we can think differently about evaluating this practice in London. It was also the same week in which I received an invitation to a conference entitled Cutting, Tearing and Slicing. Art and Arts Therapies in the age of austerity

'I heard artists saying the same thing: engaging with communities in this way has always been ‘bloody hard’ but it was becoming even harder.'

I mention all of these because at each of them I heard artists saying the same thing: engaging with communities in this way has always been ‘bloody hard’ but it was becoming even harder. Partly because, as the conference title suggests, so many of the traditional structures and safety nets have been decimated. Partly because artists increasingly find themselves right at the coalface where it can feel like the arts are being tasked with picking up all the pieces in a world whose very social fabric is broken.  
And yet, despite the increasing challenges and frustrations with evaluation processes that look for immediately measurable output and outcomes, I never sensed any diminishment of the passion and commitment artists feel for this work. Or for the communities they collaborate with. What they found difficult was the sense of isolation. What they wanted were more opportunities to be together and work as part of something more collective. 

'It is within this space of collectivity and solidarity that I feel socially engaged and participatory arts practice is beginning to grow and change.'

At the end of that week, I spent an afternoon working with organisations in Pendle, an area in the North of England consistently at the bottom of national attainment, employment, health and well-being league tables. Listening to a group of what had once been very disparate organisations speaking with such fervour about the connectedness they had found through working together as commissioners, creators and partners on artist Suzanne Lacy’s Shapes of Water: Sounds of Hope made me realise how important partnership is to this work. As everyone in the room began to speak about the ways in which this project had enabled them to see their, often disjointed, community anew it felt fitting we had come together in Clarion House, built to enable local mill workers and their families to enjoy the beauty of the countryside and encourage a spirit of ‘co-operation and fellowship’ rather than individual greed. Having found ways to celebrate the history of their part of Lancashire, while embracing the rich cultural diversity that makes it what it is today, each of them wanted to continue this journey.  And, taking art as their starting point, to expand their renewed sense of community until ‘it becomes a movement of people, emerging from our individual silos and travelling in the same direction; sharing an identity and holding common values’. 

It is within this space of collectivity and solidarity that I feel socially engaged and participatory arts practice is beginning to grow and change. Yes, the top-down, ‘we are here to help you’, mode still exists. And yes, one can sometimes feel this practice will always remain at the periphery of audience development work for some large arts and cultural institutions. But, as organisations like Battersea Arts Centre, the Horniman Museum and the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art begin placing their work with local communities at the very core of their practice, I have a sense something is shifting. 

'By working collectively we could find ways to disrupt and upturn the injustices and inequities that were the cause of that anger.'

Talking about this shift with a colleague who, like me, was active in what we still called community arts in the 1980s, I asked what he felt had made us want to work in this way. His response was ‘We were angry’. And yes, in many ways we were: being ‘angry’ was part of what we felt it meant to be an artist.  But it was also that many of us, especially those of us who came from working class and minority backgrounds were learning, through events like Rock Against Racism, that our art might be an important way to create the sense of solidarity we were looking for. By working collectively we could find ways to disrupt and upturn the injustices and inequities that were the cause of that anger. Just as we built on the blurring of arts and activism we had seen in the work of artists like Joseph Beuys, Fluxus, or the Artists Placement programmes in the 1960s, we sensed a growing number of artists today are wanting to find ways to create, ‘something more social, more collaborative and more real than art ’. 

Few of us would claim socially engaged arts programmes are able to bring about social change by themselves, especially within communities that have experienced a surfeit of having things done to them. But I think there is a growing recognition that what artists can do best is create those spaces where people are able to come together to look at the fierce and urgent questions that face our society. Spaces that enable communities to unleash their ‘radical imaginations’, shift their ‘sense of what is possible’, and ‘model and experiment with new ways of being in the world’.  As artist Francisco Rubio, working within arts collective hablarenarte in one of the toughest areas of Barcelona, recently told me, this work is increasingly about art and artists becoming more ‘situated’ and embedded within their communities – no longer acting from a position of privilege, but existing ‘as just one more agent’ in re-activating neighbourhoods by enabling and supporting grassroots action.

'It takes time to listen deeply, time to be with people and time to build trust.'

‘Time and commitment’, notes artist Mark Storor, currently undertaking a twelve-year project with men and children in St Helens, near Liverpool, is ‘crucial to this way of working’. It takes time to listen deeply, time to be with people and time to build trust. It takes time to develop what artist Selina Thompson describes the ‘mutual respect and understanding of how we are going to work with each other – despite what we share or don’t share’. And to find meaningful ways to build on the lived and embodied knowledge our participants bring to the spaces we co-create. 

So, what can those of us who engage in participatory or socially engaged arts practice offer in terms of addressing real and significant social change? How can we begin to build a different narrative with communities that increasingly feel abandoned by the system? One participant in Isabel Lima’s Gresham Horse project spoke of being dispersed to Middlesbrough as a refugee and finding it a ‘damaged town’ where it felt ‘damaging to live’.  He then went on to describe how he, along with other asylum seekers, had been ‘put back together’ through their involvement with this project. By creating and building something together with local people, they had gained a sense that they finally had a contribution to make and could be part of a community again.  

I took the title Power Up from a piece of work created by artist Corita Kent in the 1960s.  Kent’s simple and passionate belief in the power of arts, activism and popular action still feels emboldening. For her, there was no doubt about it: art, and our active participation in it, can bring about change. We just have to trust to it.  And trust ourselves. And then get on with the building and making.

See also