I welcome the call to make writing and art more accessible. It felt as though everyone in the room at Hestercombe supported this notion without really addressing what this could mean and what the implications are for those present. Why do we want writing to become more accessible? Who is it we want to engage with? What are we doing which excludes them? How can we challenge this?
Yusra Warsama is a poet, an actor and maker of theatre, who gave a provocation at Power Through Diversity, Manchester, December 2016. This event was aimed at arts leaders, Chairs and decision makers, to provoke debate, inspire change and celebrate good practice around diversity of governance, leadership and thinking. Yusra calls us to ‘always just take a look around the room, take that personal responsibility to look out the room and see who is not there, then deeper and better still, what voices are in the room and which ones are missing?' We all noticed there were voices missing at Hestercombe.
I very rarely interpret work alone or navigate an exhibition or art work in solitude. After graduating I gravitated toward the Learning and Education Departments of museums and art centres. Mainly because working there, gave me a platform for encountering art with people of all ages, from a range of backgrounds. These encounters took the form of workshops and residencies in hospitals, community centres, schools, mother and baby units, arts centres, conferences and as part of public art projects. My approach was to encourage participants to express opinions, share ideas and interact with each other through a combination of practical art making and discussion. These encounters allowed me to enhance the depth and flavour of my own understanding of art.
I haven't facilitated, consulted or taught, purely because it is a worthy thing to do. It can be tricky, awkward and challenging. Questioning art work and making the institution and culture permeable reveals what Warsama describes as ‘the deeper textures of what might be’. In the Background text on this site I talk about generating a kaleidoscope of unresolved meanings, interpretations, relationships, and visions. It's not about teaching people what to think about art work or showing them what the correct connections or associations are. It is about making space for people to articulate their own personal responses to work.
Experiencing art with others can be like discovering new caverns and cave systems I never knew existed. Someone else’s head torch can catch the edge of new pothole or illuminate where we find ourselves – in a way I simply can’t on my own.There were moments in the last twenty years when this work has been full of tension, mistrust and anger. I have been involved in projects where those who are perceived to be from marginalised groups, feel used and their involvement has been tokenistic. I have learnt that audiences are not one homogenous group. Neither can they be divided into neat categories. Audiences overlap and constantly shift in ever changing constellations of interests, backgrounds, networks and communities. As individuals, we are all a combination of the trashy, philosophical, romantic, political, sinister, humorous and loving to name but a few. I myself identify or describe who I am in several different ways, many, many times a day. So too the groups and communities that I align myself with changes, sometimes from one minute to the next. More so now I am a parent of young children, spending the clear majority of my time far, far away outside the walls of the institution.
Yusra’s provocation both provoked and excited me. She speaks what I believe to be a truth when she says we still have massive barriers in our country when it comes to race and class (and also disability). How can we invite people to energetically and confidently add their voices? How can I draw other people’s voices into my writing with absolute integrity? What do I need to let go of and make way for? What would such a project look like?
For me, ‘I See Fireworks’ by Helen Cole is where memory, archive, meaning making and collective authorship collide. The installation in a black box space consists of audio recordings of people talking about their memories of a favourite performance or live work alongside old fashioned light bulbs. The bulbs illuminate and fade in relation to the sound of softly spoken memories. George Meredith wrote about 'I See Fireworks' at Inbetween Time 13 in his review:
‘As we sit, staring up at the flickering lights which hang above us, we feel an immense privilege. We share each individual experience, or rather, the echoing recollection of that experience, an imprint – like the spots of light that remain when we close our eyes. Each voice betrays its character……..They have lives which affect their experience and ideas on life and death which may be different from our own.'
Helen Cole strips away any everyday distractions and invites us to focus on the each person's response. The recordings don't feel rehearsed or read from a script. They feel spontaneous and conversational. I can hear each person's distinct voice, building meaning as they talk. I am given space to create my own associations and climb inside their memories and thoughts.
Maybe what is needed is an unravelling of how we experience writing and reading in the world alongside the possibilities of working collectively, with others. Not pathologized others, but others with quite specific and sometimes different agendas, language, backgrounds, thoughts, references and connections. It’s taking ourselves out of our comfort zone and being open to writing that we don’t know. Yusra urges us to acknowledge that ‘we unfairly commission and push narratives that we relate to, narratives that are to our palate and taste….and …. don’t reflect the mixed communities that are outside these doors.’
What are the palates, tastes and narratives that we hold as writers. An online course by NODE succinctly maps out a familiar topography of art writing in a description of their online course ‘Creative Forms of Art Criticism and Writing’.
‘On a macro-level we will investigate how art criticism can open up to a bigger realm that goes beyond a particular artwork or exhibition, providing insight into ongoing tendencies and movements in contemporary culture…… On a micro-level we will also look for ways to expand art criticism’s narrative into the poetic and the fictional.’ The course description questions ‘How do critics put their finger on the pulse of their times?’ and concludes with the general aim ‘to develop a better sense of your own personal interests, voice and style.’
It feels obvious to me that the course is aimed at people who are clearly already established in the art world. NODE lists those interested in what they do as ‘Node Community'. Members of this community describe themselves as artists, writers, curators and programmers. However what other routes are there to pin pointing the pulse of our times? Just as art has the capacity to connect to ‘bigger realms’, as a writer I want to explore these new possibilities with people who don’t necessarily share my cultural background.
I remember having a conversation with someone at ‘Sanctum’, a work by Theaster Gates, Bristol, 2015. I wanted to know how visitors’ responses to over 552 hours of a continuous programme of performers, musicians and bands was going to be captured. The challenge seemed unweildy and impossible. The narrative of this project was disparate and unholdable – beyond barriers of class and background. It was scattered across the city by those who experienced it first hand and simultaneously throughout the world via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, You Tube and so on.
Now the project hangs in virtual and real memory. Some participant and visitor responses have been curated on Sanctum’s website. It is not clear what criteria was used to edit them. However, I am inspired by what Situations describes as Gate’s working principle - ‘seeing and reflecting upon the unseen, unvisited and underheard’.
Perhaps my own art writing odyssey should be fractured like the way I experience the world. Words are thrown at me, at high speed in ways I could only have dreamt of when I graduated 20 years ago. I am reading in an extraordinary mix of formats, styles and voices. Thanks to my Smartphone I flit from Facebook status updates, the school newsletter, Guardian articles and text messages – all before breakfast. My world is authored by old school friends, families, work colleagues, childrens’ authors newspaper and magazine journalists, bloggers, theorists and so on. How can I create writing that transforms, chameleon like, across different formats – perhaps opening up dialogue and exchange too?
Claire Bishop talks about Roland Barthes in the Introduction to her book ‘Artificial Hells: participatory art and the politics of spectatorship’,
‘As Roland Barthes reminded us in 1968, authorships (of all kinds) are multiple and continually indebted to others. What matters are the ideas, experiences and possibilities that result from these interactions.’
I will leave the last words to Yuswara,
'The world is a village. I speak to you in a language that is a bastard to my tongue but I love it. Artists will always make art. It’s to our loss if we don’t open up narratives and stop being gatekeepers to what narrative is and truly, truly listen.'