Interview with Elaine Midgley

Interview with Elaine Midgley

Director at Bedford Creative Arts

Can you tell me about your organisation’s rationale and main objective for your socially engaged work?

Bedford Creative Arts has been around for 35 years. We were born during the 1970s’ Community Arts Movement and we used to be called Bedford Community Arts. Things changed over the years and becoming an Arts Council NPO has meant that we’ve pushed the quality of our work. It’s been less about just working through the arts, but also about creating some important pieces of art. So sometimes the actual final outcome is very important to us, whereas a lot of socially engaged practice organisations focus on the process and not necessarily on the artistic outcome. That’s led us to work with a bigger range of practitioners. When we started, there was lots of work with local practitioners, now we also work with national and international artists. When I arrived, the organisation was very eclectic because we were the only national portfolio organisation in Bedford and outside of Luton. There was a temptation for us to do anything artistic that was asked of us. Lots of inquiries came our way. We had programmes with the refugee detention centre, for example, which was part of a national programme called Music In Detention. We also ran creative networks, and we had the studios. We had all of these different pieces, but they didn’t pull together towards a particular type of practice. When I arrived at BCA, in 2018, we rewrote the vision and mission statement and it became really clear that socially engaged practice had to be at the core, which is one of the reasons why I was quite comfortable to let go of the studios as the practice of the artists wasn’t necessarily socially engaged.

What’s important for us is our work with communities in Bedfordshire. Our work always has to stem from Bedfordshire, however, if the outcome of that work has a touring legacy or can be replicated or used nationally, then we might tour it, or we might take the project idea to another community. We work with communities of any kind. We might define a community as a neighbourhood, or we might define a community as a group of people with a shared characteristic like women, or people from the LGBTQ community. We’re always trying to do projects that look at a particular social issue. It will be about listening to that community about what they want to address, whether it’s an issue of social justice, or community cohesion, or engagement, or it might be around placemaking. Something that the community wants to explore. And then we will work out the approach. Whether it’s working with a particular artist, or launching an open call. We start from the premise of community and issue first before the artist as opposed to the other way around.  

We want communities to realise this intrinsic power the arts have to help them to be heard, to help them challenge issues of social justice, environmental justice, to change the status quo. We do it in different ways: we might do a commission or we might just work really embedded in the community. And that might manifest itself with something very simple, like workshops and small interventions. We do have The Culture Challenge programme, which is our main education strand, where we act as broker between schools and culture providers. We also do lots of developmental work and set up networks. We have recently revisited running something called Creative Bedfordshire, which is a free network for all creatives. It will allow us to debate, explore and connect with artists and build networks of practitioners that we can work with. We’re a very small organisation. We’ve only got one lead producer at the moment, a lead project manager, and then we have marketing and admin support. The idea is that we can expand and contract depending on the number of projects that we’re working on. When we’ll get some funding, we’ll bring in the team we need. At the moment, we’re doing a big placemaking project about airships. We’ve worked with 20 practitioners on that particular project over two years, and then we will contract back down again, when that project comes to an end.  


Can you tell me about one project that was particularly successful at creating a change in the people from the community that you worked with?

We work quite closely with a housing association called bpha, in the Queen’s Park ward in Bedford. It’s not the most deprived area in Bedford, but it’s very multicultural and with high levels of community cohesion. There are different communities, the Muslims, the Hindu communities, Parish and Christian communities. They all get along very well with each other, but we realised that if you were a resident that didn’t worship at one of the faith organisations and didn’t connect with one of those groups, you could be a bit isolated. The housing association was interested in these families that sort of fall between the net. Our approach was to take the two streets with the highest levels of housing association houses, and put a gazebo at the end of the road every weekend and ask who wanted to come and play. On that occasion, we invited two artists who were actually London based, Maria Anastasiou and Julie Myers. Their practice was based on film and visual art. They did bring down cameras and art materials. But we were also happy to look at board games, sport or at whatever the kids wanted to connect to. That community is very food focused and there was quite a lot of food sharing. It led to something called In-Situ Cinema, and we did some film work and animations with children. We ended up working regularly with about 60 residents, who were coming back again and again. Their levels of engagement had gone from virtually nothing to coming every weekend. The challenge we have, is funding and exit strategy. What we were trying to do is to signpost that community back into the structures that already existed in that part of the town. We did end up working with that community for three years. Unfortunately, there’s been quite a long gap between that and the project we’re doing now because of COVID. But we’re now back into that community and this time our brief is to work with the whole ward of the town. We are bringing some artists in again, but they aren’t coming in with a particular commission or project, they’ve come in to listen, first of all.

Did you contact the Housing Association, or they contacted you to?

They caught wind of us being around and wanted to have a conversation. At that time, I don’t think they knew what they wanted. They just were interested in the opportunities about working through art. Because of COVID, we spent a long time not being present in the neighbourhood. We’ve now found a local resident who’s working in that community and asked her if she will help with brokering us back into the community, we’re reconnecting with Councillors and faith groups. We have started to develop community ambassadors and hope in future we could mentor them on how to get their own funding.  

How do you decide how you are going to work with artists, via commissions or open call for example?

If we look at the Airship project, we had an inquiry from an artist who was interested in joining us as a board member. It turned out that he used to live in Bedford as a child, but now he’s gone off to live in the north.  We developed a relationship with Mike and realised that one of his fascinations during his childhood was in connection with the airship. We started to talk to older people in the community about their memories, we talked to the museum, and we broke the relationship with the Airship Heritage Trust, and realised that there was a project to be had around that. And there was a sense of urgency about the fact that memory of this piece of heritage was going to be lost, if we didn’t do something to preserve it. The idea did come from the artist and came from a relationship with him.  He had particular collaborators in mind that he wanted to work with, a projection artist, and we developed opportunities for local artists too. We did an open call, but it was for just a part of the project, to find a sound artist. We targeted not just the composing and visual art sector, but we also put it in sound magazines. We also approached artists whose practice we liked. We received nearly 200 applications and it suddenly became a huge process. We created an open call also for the Queen’s Park project. But the downside was that some of the stronger artists weren’t local. And there was definitely a tension between how strong their practice was, versus how well they were going to connect with the community and be available to the community during the time. In the end, we picked three artists in order to have a balance, one who came from Cambridgeshire, one who actually lived in that community, and then one who was based in London.  

What would you say are the biggest challenges of working with communities and artists?

I think safeguarding, and when you have communities where there are challenges that are far bigger than your own expertise. Our expertise is in the art, and we want to work with communities that might be deprived or might have social challenges. But what you’re doing isn’t going to solve their problems. And inevitably, those problems come into the work. We have had issues where you’ve had people with quite serious mental health concerns and we’ve realised that they’re not being supported by social services. We’ve often found ourselves vulnerable. We wouldn’t, for example, do anything around social prescribing without working directly with a counsellor or people who have the right sort of practice to support the individuals we’re working with. But sometimes, it’s unexpected. It might be an issue of suddenly realising there’s a safeguarding issue around domestic abuse. And you either need to raise a safeguarding concern, or you need to be ready to signpost people to charities that can help. We’ve also found that there are always political tensions in communities and you just can’t avoid it. We’ve discovered that in Bedford certain black-led community organisations don’t get on with each other. But we didn’t know that when we started having conversations with some, and then another organisation would approach us and ask why are you talking to them, you should be talking to us. Suddenly, you realise you’ve got caught up in these political tensions between groups. You have to just try and navigate your way through without ruffling too many feathers, but it can be very time consuming. And you can do something that you think is quite innocent, quite simple, but actually has a very big personal impact on particular individuals. In the Queen’s Park community, for example, we started talking about a mural project and the church invited us to use one of their walls. We were criticised for working with the church, because it was White-led and Christian. And we were being accused of being an overly white organisation in a multicultural community. There were also sensitivities around whether the church was accessible to the community.  It’s taken a really long time to complete a project that we thought would be done within a few months. We’ve had to therefore work very closely with all of our funders, to get them to support us through it. You can’t ignore what comes out of the community once you get into the thick of it. Thankfully, we’ve been lucky that the funders have been very understanding and allowed us to extend.

How did you manage the situation with the church and the community?  

We just did more consultation and we tried to make it as neutral as possible. Instead of going along to the key events, where there’s a perspective of bias, we would just pop up with a trestle table out on the playground to genuinely get a snapshot of people in the community. We collected a lot of data that helped support some resistance to the church community and then presented it back to the church. We kept on having conversations with them. They’ve now offered to host wider community meetings and started to accept the fact that if the wider community don’t want to engage with their idea, then it means we won’t be able to progress.

Apart from the logistical aspects and the closure of the studios, has Covid brought any changes to your way of operating?

We realised that when we had an office, we brought people to us all of the time. Even if you’re having a meeting with some community leaders or meeting with an artist, you tend to just do it in your office because it’s convenient. Originally, the reason why we were going to leave the office was cost based; it was expensive to keep an office that we didn’t use because of Covid. But we then decided to treat it like a project in itself. We have researched locations that have Wi Fi that don’t mind you turning up and can be rented for cheap price if you need to book a room. We try to talk to the proprietor and use it as another opportunity to listen to what’s going on in the town and then feed that back to the rest of the staff team. We deliberately try to make the most of being physically present. We also branded ourselves, silly things like putting our logo on coffee cups, it adds to that sense of us being visible. I’m interested to see how far we can push that. We’ve talked about whether we would even take a gazebo and pop up in a park and work there for half day just to see what happens. We’re going to document our learning and our experiences of working in that way and what worked and what didn’t. We want to keep pursuing with the experimentation. I’m really interested to find and try what we haven’t done yet by finding other people who are working in that way. Also looking at other sectors, looking at social workers and midwives, people who are used to working in the community and not working from an office space and how they do that.  

What changes would you like to see in this field that may have the potential to improve your work and increase your impact?

I feel as though organisations that work in this practice are not well networked to each other and well supported by each other. Artists seem to connect quite well as individual practitioners, but as organisations we’re still a bit unique. The Arts Council finds us challenging, because we don’t conform to a lot of the other national portfolio organisations’ structures. When we report to the Arts Council, sometimes the things that we’ve been doing just don’t fit in any of the boxes. We’ve been doing a lot of challenging back to the Arts Council but we’re a bit of a lone voice. We’re trying to reach out to other people who are like us and who have similar challenges in order to learn more from each other about things like reporting and evaluation. One of my eternal frustrations with the Arts Council actually is that we give them an enormous amount of data and yet, they don’t share it back. I would love them to open the database, show everything that was funded and share some of the key outcomes and budget mechanisms so that you can better connect to people doing work like yours and better show your outcomes on a national scale.  

I also find the phrase ‘socially engaged’ very interesting. I feel it’s being used more and more but I still think it’s one of those terms that everybody has their own different definition of.  Sometimes we’ve started working with an artist, and then we challenged them, because we don’t think they’re truly socially engaged. They’re artists using a social theme in their work, but they’re not truly socially engaged. We have started to think about how we can challenge artists that we might work with, and how we test our working relationship with them before we engage with them. That’s been the danger with an open call as someone gives you a great application, they talk very articulately, but actually, when you start working together, you realise that your definitions of practice are very different.

ID 1: Take Part Queen’s Park, photo by Andy Willsher
ID 2: Insitu Cinema. Photo Credit: Cat Lane
ID 3: Take Part Queen’s Park, photo by Andy Willsher


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Interview with Anthony Schrag

Interview with Anthony Schrag

How does social engagement fit in your practice, and is there one event, one single opportunity, that made your practice shift?

For me, socially engaged practice is a contested term. I prefer to call myself a participatory artist. I think that’s because socially engaged art feels like it’s owned and has specific politics related to it. I’m interested in how to problematise that term. I got involved with participation because I quite like ‘working with people who are not me’. That phrase actually comes from artist Anne-Marie Copestake, and the embedded nature of that ‘anyone who is not me’ implies that there’s a diverse and plural society that you work with, and in that diverse and plural contexts and communities, there will be different ideologies, politics and peoples. Many times, socially engaged practice is about orienting towards some sort of social change or some sort of shift in thinking. My entire practice is without exception, engaged. I don’t make objects; I don’t make exhibitions. It all comes from the engagement with people, whether that’s in a research context, a process context or in a development context; very rarely will it be just me. When I was in my master degree in Glasgow, I was making a video where I was using my feet to hook into underneath of a stairs to make me look as though I’m walking downstairs but the video is upside down. I was working on this performance and I’d forgotten to lock the doors in a very busy place. At one point a lady just came down the stairs, and I suddenly looked at this work, thinking that she had ruined it. But actually, this person coming down the stairs had made it even more interesting and better. It was a point in my practice where I realised, I’m interested in how other people can impact art and that an artistic practice could be conversational and dialogic. From that point onwards I moved to a way of working, that is how do I create a context, by which other people could intervene or interfere

How would you define success and what project do you think was successful for your standard of success?

For me, the standard of success lies in my PhD and most of my work talks about what I would refer to as productive conflict or pro-social conflict and this idea that there are multiple perspectives, multiple diversities and multiple spaces. Transgressive space is not one where the transgressive nature is the purpose; the transgressive artistic space is one that gives space for unheard voices. Participatory practice that is successful, has some new insight or perspective being revealed or presented or has, for example, a different way of thinking, being put into conversation with a more standard and acceptable way of thinking. I have often called projects failures in regards to art, but successes in regards to engagement. I’ve done projects, people have been involved, there have been workshops, things have happened, but I haven’t hit the art because there isn’t been a space for people to disagree, to present new ideas for the voices to be comfortable enough to challenge another group of people or to be comfortable enough to stand aside. So, for me success is really about how you create some forms of either psychosocial, conceptual or physical space for multiplicity to be presented and reflected upon.

On your website you present a concept of conflict in communities, can you explain what you mean with that?

It goes back to that notion of when we, artists or other people choose to develop practices which try to make the world ‘better’. ‘Better’ is a complicated term because there are power implications on who gets to decide what the ‘right’ kind of ‘better’ is?  This goes back to that point about the ‘success’ of these practices requires conflict, but I don’t mean wars and fighting. If we define art the thing that challenges habits, that complicates the world, the thing that maybe presents a new way of seeing the existence, then ‘conflict’ is the ability to have an alternative perspective being presented, which is complicated. I did a project which was about a particular sociohistorical experience in a Highland village where it was really massive issue, and sort of had infused the entire cultural perspective of this entire area for 200 years. The project I ended up doing uncovered the fact that the children of the village decided that they did not want to focus on this issue. For them to present an idea that was contrary to what the adults thought was the right way of doing things, and this problematized the narrative of what was ‘right’ and what was ‘wrong’. It actually revealed that the adults and the art centre was invested in speaking about this particular historical moment, and this was an economic argument not a creative one. The art was really about how do I present different contexts for these children to present multiple different perspectives and to think about the future so the art was a way of expression and language, it was almost like a forum.

What do you think are the challenges of doing these kinds of work with communities?

My challenge is the relationship with the institution: an art gallery or museum, a local authority or someone with the money. They often frame those projects – either through the funding or through their experience – and want specific things out of those projects. The hardest thing for individual artists to work with is how they negotiate not only theirs but those institutions’ desires (what I would call institutional intent) and also the community’s desires. Obviously, also, a challenge will be how they understand the community because the community is going to be multiple and plural and it’s going to be many different communities, not just a single group identity. I think the biggest challenge is how you’re able to negotiate and navigate productively, the institution, the community, and the art, and keep those in tension, and that is something very difficult.

And how do you manage to do it?

It’s fundamentally relationships. People come in with the assumption that the institutions are bad. Parachuting someone into a community is not necessarily a bad idea. If the community, if the institution has a good relationship, if they understand you are being positioned as an outsider, if they have clear perspectives and understandings of the brief and what’s coming out of it. But all of that comes with relationships with both the communities and the people, and so it’s a longer process, but it’s about communication of what the assumptions are. I often use my grandmother in my lecturing as a way to talk about some of these issues. She would have thrown herself in front of a bus to protect me, she loved me fiercely. But she was also a racist Tory. She’s not a bad person because she holds those beliefs: rather she imagines a specific type of world where I might be safe – and that doesn’t make her a bad person. Sometimes institutions develop projects where they basically say: Go and tell people that racism is bad and fix them. I can’t fix my grandmother because she comes from a very long context so what I have to do is to understand her. First of all, I have to communicate to an institution about what those problems are, but then I have to communicate to a community about what those are and then I have to find a way by which I can value and validate people within those engagements, as well as the institution and my own artistic premise that I’m not just kind of trying to create a simplistic world order, where everything is flattened and the world is a place where everyone believes the same thing.

Do you normally look for opportunities in the art world or outside?

I would say probably the vast majority now is all outside. But when I was starting out, right after I graduated, my roommate accused me of having an “application-based practice.” because I just applied for everything, all the time. I spent the two years just applying and I’m much more discerning now that I’m a little bit older. There’s an organisation called Deveron Projects up in Aberdeen. I had a really good project with them, and because of that, I was able to continue conversations and chase up another project and sort of say: hey, we worked really well together. Do you think we could work on an application for something else? For emerging artists, when you find a relationship that works, keep up those relationship because finding people that feel like you, have a synergy, is a really helpful way to move forward.

How do you sustain your practice?

A lot of my PhD looked at cultural management in the arts. When it was completed, I had developed a lot of arts management understandings and this full-time job came up at a University (Queen Margarets in Edinburgh). It’s a platform to research elements and it changed my practice quite significantly. Instead of doing sort of intensive residency based social practices, I have longer, stretched out relationships, one day a week over a year or so. But that’s kind of how I sustained most of my practice and that is working out quite well because the teaching and the work that I’m doing inside the institution just feels like a natural extension of my practice.

One of the reasons why I was hired was because I said: I’m only useful as an artist. I have skills in terms of cultural management and I can teach it and I have an interest in pedagogy. But my contribution to this institution is only effective if I continue to practice as an artist. I feel people understand me as an artist, I feel like even the senior management and the Dean, they fully welcome me doing crazy projects.

It seems like creativity is your way to do everything. Your website looks like an artwork in itself, for example.

I use it like a board, where you pin your thoughts and ideas. Thomas Hirschorn comments that whenever he makes his monumental projects, he uses “materials that do not intimidate” and I think this goes back to the fact that I don’t make objects and I’m not very good at making objects, and that even in the in the manifestation of a website I didn’t want it to look like a website. I do everything on cardboard, so let’s make a website with cardboard and monochrome because if you’re working with others, with people who aren’t as confident or visually literate in some ways, websites they can be too slick, they can be exclusive, exclusionary.  

You are part of the academic world, but are you part of any other networks that you think are useful to feel less operating in a bubble of your own, that connects you to other artists?

Because Scotland is small, there’s quite an informal social network, that I think helps people support each other. I come across, for example a commission that I don’t have time for or it doesn’t suit me, I will instantly forward it to other people. I get the same back and I think it feels very supportive in that way.  There’s a couple of networks that I’ve personally initiated so I’m part of an Arts and Health Network, which is kind of looking at arts and healthcare contexts but kind of challenging the assumptions.

Are there any producers or commissioners that you think are particularly important for emerging artists?

I would always say to an emerging artist, look for the organisations that are doing what you think is interesting. We’ve already talked about Deveron Projects, which is very place-based, and really interesting. The director Claudia was instrumental in a lot of my practice. It’s about finding synergies, it’s about relationships and building those relationships. I recognise that as an emerging artist that might be really daunting but the vast majority of people in social engaged practices are quite open to someone else just reaching out. I think most people are really interested in new and emerging art talent. But these skills aren’t really taught in university so I get that artists are scared.

 How was COVID for you these last 18 months?

The Royal Scottish Academy’s COVID commission had a call for artists’ responses to the pandemic and I proposed to do a socially engaged response and digital social engage response which ended up as a series of zines which are quite good, I think!. As for the Master, it was the first times we were running this new master programme. It’s so hard to run socially engaged masters when you can’t socially engage, it’s sort of defies territory totally so that was a very complicated thing but we have graduating students who are doing great work, so it must have worked.

Do you think that the digital will remain part of your work or you will just go back to how it was before?

Suzanne Lacy said that technology is a tool, a tool that we are learning to use in the same way that we learned how to use video. Nicolas Bourriaud suggests that we don’t go to the theatre or go and see art because we like to go to theatre. We go because we like to gather together with people looking at these things and so the thing itself is almost slightly not important to the act of us coming together. I’m believer of that: that might be because I’m of a certain age and generation you know I certainly see my nieces and nephews who are younger who don’t see that distinction, but for me I still don’t see how I could operate purely in the digital.

Is there anything you wish you knew when you started your career?

I think there’s something about the recognition of how practices can change. There’s an assumption that you are set stepping into this practice and this will be for the rest of your life. I wish it had been explained to me that practice is like any form of art, that changes, morphs, adapts and that’s natural, and that’s okay. I see a lot of people who are getting trapped into ways of working, even particularly socially engaged practice where they don’t like people anymore, but they’re going down this path, because they think they should. And you’re not having a good time and neither of the people you’re working with, maybe it’s time to move away from that. So, it’s something about how your practice can change and adapt and how to keep it fresh.

I think there’s also something about cultural management tools that I wish I was taught, things like how to write an application, how to present yourself, how to get practical skills, which I think some art schools are doing better but most aren’t doing at all. But management is an anathema, in cultural terms. There is an assumption that if you know how to be logical and rational and use an Excel sheet, somehow, you’re not as good as an artist. Those are skills in the same way that is a skill to learn how to use the camera or a website. These are skills that are useful, you’re not going to use them all the time, but unless you have them, you’re going to be disadvantaged.

ID 1: “Art Cannot Help You” (2014) Public Performance with 9 Urban Biotopes. Johannesburg, South Africa. Copyright Anthony Schrag. (Image Credit: Anthony Schrag)
ID 2: “History On Trial” (Video Still) (2013) Public Event with Timespan Museum and Archive. Sutherlandshire, Scotland. Copyright: Anthony Schrag (Image Credit: Anthony Schrag) 
ID 3: “A Perfect Father Day?” (2011) Day long event with Deveron Projects. Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Copyright: Anthony Schrag and Deveron Projects. (Image Credit: Jan Holm)  


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Interview with Eelyn Lee

Interview with Eelyn Lee

How does social engagement fit in your practice and what event or single opportunity informed that change?

I’ve always had a socially engaged practice. I studied Fine Art at Bretton Hall College, which is now closed but it was formally affiliated to Leeds University and based on the site where the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is in West Yorkshire. I studied a very traditional Fine Art degree in painting, printmaking and drawing. But I was interested in live art as well, performance and devised visual theatre and I think I was always interested in the education rooms in galleries, working with young people. I did a work placement at Leeds City Art Gallery with Judith Nesbitt the Education Worker there and I helped run the art workshops. 

I think there’s something inherent in me where I’m kind of a natural facilitator. At school, as a teenager, I was always facilitating, I think that’s probably where I facilitated my first socially engaged art project. We used to have these arts festivals at school and I was very much the one who would be getting groups of people together to collectively devise performances and theatre. Later, I tried to combine my art practice with this inherent interest in working collectively, aware of my ability to play this kind of pivotal role in bringing groups of people together.  

After graduating, I set up a performance group called Sacred Cow. We were all women working collectively to devise site-based performances in old mills and warehouses in Bradford. I was also naturally drawn to Community Arts (as it was called then). It was a way of making a living as well. So there’s not one single event that changed my practice.  When I moved to London, in the mid 90s I got some work at a community arts organisation called Theatre Venture. The Artistic Director was John McGrath, who now runs Manchester International Festival. They were working with communities in East London and I learned a lot about working at a grassroots level. I learned how to outreach on the ground, and also how to work in interdisciplinary ways alongside musicians and theatre practitioners, artists, designers and writers. And because I’ve always had an interest in theatre, the history and methodology in devised and improvised theatre, informed my arts practice and my socially engaged arts practice. And now it continues to inform it, particularly my filmmaking.

You work both with professional but also non-professional artists. In what way is collaboration at the heart of your practice?  

I think you always know when it’s working well, when you can’t tell who’s done what. Then you really are working together on a level playing field. And when you are genuinely working collaboratively, there is this kind of like state of flow, without too much communication. If you’ve got a group of people working to a shared goal, and the goal is actually high, it’s ambitious, but you provide the tools, resources and the means to reach that goal, you will, at some point, reach a state of flow*.  But of course, when you’re working with non professionals, you have to carefully invest time to make sure there are spaces that are held with a lot of care and sensitivity in order to build trust first. So once you’ve built that trust, maybe then you can bring in more professionals. Because I work in film, there’s usually a piece of art at the end of a process –a moving image piece. I like it when you can’t see who’s done what, when you can’t say, ‘oh, that’s been done by a professional’. You get a sense from the work, there was genuine collaboration through the process. That is an indicator of success.

What do you think non-professional artists get out of it?  How do you evaluate that process?  

I suppose one common denominator would be a sense of confidence and self-esteem. But then when you do more careful, considered evaluation, they’re always very different things for different people.  For The River Project, I was working together with art students at Sheffield College. We were collectively researching the local landscape, on the edges of the city, where the River Don meets a derelict Victorian cemetery. A really interesting landscape on the outer edges of North Sheffield –a familiar landscape that many of the students had taken for granted or not really looked carefully at. We researched all sorts of things about the history, the myths behind the River Don, and then shared the research in an exhibition at Site Gallery, which is the contemporary art gallery in Sheffield. We also made a film inspired by some of the research. At the end of the project, I made sure that we had some really good quality space for evaluation. And what really struck me was that quite a few of the students said that, prior to the project, they didn’t really talk to each other. That’s because of the way education has become: they would turn up, sit down in their art class, get on with their portfolio work. But because of the project, where we were all working together, they got to know each other. And now they’re friends. For me, that was a really, really important outcome.

How did The River Project start? Were you invited by the school to do the project or did you approach them?

At the time I was having conversations with Site Gallery and Paula McCloskey, the  Participation Manager at the time. Paula was interested in my practice, and I was really interested in what she was doing at the gallery. Through her conversations with communities in the city, this opportunity came up to do a project based on the River Don. The Don Catchment River Trust had some funding and they wanted to work with young people. Paula invited me to devise a project because she knew about the work that I’d been doing on the Thames Estuary

What makes a project successful and which one of your projects do you think was the most successful and why?

I don’t think you ever do the perfect project. The idea of perfection is quite overrated. When we (Social Art Network) convened the Social Art Summit in Sheffield in 2018 we foregrounded the whole event by saying that we were interested in talking about failure and how failure is a part of the practice. There are quite a few projects I’ve done that I’d say were successful. They have elements of success and failure in them, but overall, have been successful. The River Project was definitely a successful project. 

Another project that worked really well is Beneath the Hood, in east London, where I spent a year working in a pupil referral unit, with young people excluded from school. Collectively we made a film a portrait about some of the students –young people who have quite difficult backgrounds in terms of family situations and experiences of mainstream education. The pupil referral unit was actually a safe space for those young people and my presence in that space was potentially a threat to them. So it took quite a while to build trust. I couldn’t just bring in my usual toolkit of working with young people in schools. It forced me to come up with new techniques, new methodologies, and new ideas of how to go about making a film collectively. We came up with this idea of devising fictional characters –Bradley and Chantel, who we imagined had been excluded from mainstream school and then we developed their backstories. I brought in a graffiti artist, who turned the ideas into two illustrated characters that we then animated. The young people wrote a series of poems in the voices of Bradley and Chantel and they were able to hide behind the masks of these fictional characters. Young people love to play around with identity at that age. But of course, through the voices of the fictional characters their own autobiographical stories came out.  At the end of the project we made a film, it’s a one hour documentary that everybody had a lot of pride in. 

The film got distributed to pupil referral units all around the country. It became quite a useful tool in terms of creative learning. A few years later, the project manager who’d worked on the project bumped into one of the young people who’d been involved. He was someone who would often put himself on the periphery of things. He told the Project Manager, ‘if it wasn’t for the project Beneath the Hood, I’d have never gone to university’. The poem that he wrote for that project got published, and that was a turning point for him.

What do you think, in general, are the challenges for doing this kind of work?

You’re often working in isolation outside of the gallery system. You also have many stakeholders: you might have been commissioned by a school, a housing association or youth club, and then there are also the people that you are collaborating with, as well as the youth workers, or teachers, or the council, the people that run the housing estate etc etc. You’ve got all sorts of stakeholders and relationships that you’re having to manage and juggle. When you’re one person it’s a lot to hold. But that is also something to be celebrated because the skills that we have to develop are quite specialist. And that is very much part of the socially engaged methodology, one of the tools that we use is the ability to hold all these different relationships.

 How do you look for opportunities? Are you at the stage where opportunities find you?

I have applied for a lot of stuff in the past. But I’d say most of the stuff I didn’t get. The projects that I have been successful at getting are usually the ones where I’ve been invited to apply. It takes a long time to learn how to write those proposals. And over the years, I’ve fallen in and out of love with writing them. I remember thinking I haven’t got any money, I haven’t got any work, I need to apply for some stuff, then you wouldn’t get it, you just get these knock backs. So you have to develop a thick skin. But then something would come up. I did a major project for the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2013/14. And I was invited to apply for that. I suppose in business terms, you could say I was invited to tender for it. I don’t know how many artists they invited, but I was lucky enough to be selected.

You did a couple of residencies in Hackney, but also somewhere else in England. Were you invited to do the residency or did you apply for them?

A mixture really. In 2014, I wanted to explore some things that I was more personally interested in, and to transfer some of the methodology I’d developed whilst working in community settings, particularly collaborating with young people. I wanted to experiment with applying that way of working with other professional artists and actors. I received some Arts Council funding to carry out a project in the Barbican, where over five days we locked ourselves in the theatre and devised a film together, which was really exciting. A week later, we showed the film in the Barbican Cinema which was hosted by Gareth Evans, film curator at Whitechapel GalleryOn the back of that, I got to do a residency with Metal, who are based in Southend on the Thames Estuary. I did a series of residencies there, applied for further Arts Council funding, and was able to make a second iteration of the film that showed at the inaugural Estuary Festival, 2016. 

How do you sustain your practice?  

I am always juggling projects, and I am always longing just to be able to focus on one project at a time, but budgets never allow for that. Throughout my career I’ve often had moments of burnout. As you get older and more experienced, you learn to manage that better and maybe spot the signs earlier. 

When I was making Beneath the Hood, in Hackney in 2003, there was quite a lot of money around thanks to the New Labour government. There was more money in the public sector and a lot of artists were getting interested in social practice. We were getting work through Creative Partnerships, which was a government initiative to make schools and the curriculum more creative. It was also an opportunity to test different ways of working. Then the economic crash hit and suddenly those budgets disappeared. And you have to adapt. And so again, since we’ve hit the pandemic, we’re all adapting. Now I’m doing smaller projects. 

Because of the COVID related racism towards East and Southeast Asian [ESEA] people in this country, and in America, I’ve been doing a lot of work around ESEA identities. I’ve just done a short collaborative project with a couple of actors and a designer. We worked collaboratively online and collectively devised three mythical characters. We then shot a little moving image portrait, which was presented at a one day festival in Bow, east London. It was for me a smaller project if you like, more like a sketch of an idea.  But I’ve since applied to the Arts Council to develop it. For that project I had a small pot of money from ‘Encounter Bow’ Festival which is produced by Chisenhale Dance. I also got a small pot of money from the Sheffield Freelancers Fund, which was a COVID emergency fund. That enabled me to do the project. I never work collaboratively without a budget.  

You founded The Social Art Network. How do you think that such a network can support young artists?

I co-founded SAN with R.M Sánchez-Camus [aka Marcelo]. It came out of a peer forum that I set up at Peckham Platform in South London in 2016 supported by ArtQuest. I invited 10 artists who were interested in social practice, or had a collaborative practice and worked in settings outside of the gallery. We met once a month for six months, and the conversations were very rich and beneficial. We realised that we wanted to extend the network and expand the conversation to include more artists. We decided that we’d also like to have a national event –a Social Art Summit. Marcelo and I worked quite intensively to develop the idea of a Social Art Network and we launched it in Sheffield at the Social Art Summit in 2018, which was also co-convened with artist Ian Nesbitt. The aim of the Summit was to develop agency for artists working in the field of social practice, to raise the critical discourse around the work, and to explore ways of developing platforms for our practices. Over 300 artists came to the Summit, it was a real buzz for two days, and we got so much great feedback. Because we’d all been working in isolation; no one had been writing about the work; you never got an exhibition as a socially engaged artist. Things are shifting now.  

Is there anything you wished you knew when you started?

I think I wished I had known more about how the art world operated, how closed it is really. Some of the big questions we are dealing with now, I wished I was more aware of or I had more of an education around them: institutional racism, structural inequalities, the myth of meritocracy. When I got my art education in the late 80s early 90s, it all depended on whether you had a radical tutor or which institution you were in, to whether you had access to a feminist perspective on art history. Or a perspective on Britain’s colonial past and how that affects the structures and the lenses through which we view art and everything else. I’m very much involved in these conversations now. In 2021 I was involved in an artist-led campaign to defund the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester because it is predominantly run by white people. Being actively involved in these dialogues exposes more and more the inequity of the arts sector and I wish I had more education around that when I was younger. I think it’s important for young people to have an awareness of the history of the British Empire and the associated histories of resistance and activism. Activism that challenges those institutions and their colonial forms of governance. Young people need to be aware of these things in order to seek tools for transformation, to build new ways of working.

*Inspired by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow as outlined in, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990.

ID 1:  Production Still 06, Futurist Women, Photo by Matthew Kaltenborn, 2019
ID 2:  FilmShoot, The River Project, Photo by Eelyn Lee, 2018
ID 3:  San Xing Film Still by Eelyn Lee, 2021


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Interview with Patricio Forrester

Interview with Patricio Forrester

How does social engagement fit in your practice and what informed that change?

I think there are many layers to this decision, mainly the personal and the professional. From a personal perspective, when I started thinking about what other people might want and put myself in the position to give it to them, I became stronger, healthier and more viable as an individual.

Professionally, I had a strong desire to do something in the public space, locally, but I couldn’t really sustain it if I was having all the fun and asking people to just look on.  I felt I had to ask what other people wanted. There is a social aspect also in making work in the street without any participation because there is a benefit in creating an environment that people feel better in. Other street artists repeat their work in various places, but I set myself a geographical area where I wanted to grow and develop my processes. So I was forced into considering what other people wanted, what was better for the place. A very organic long process, not a single event. I was doing an indulgent kind of art making, doing what I liked but in that process, it is easy to alienate everybody else. Doing what you want is not always going to result in the best public artwork. I was surrounding myself with my own art. Instead involving others in the process of thinking about art and making it, seemed much better suited to the public area.

When I started thinking about what other people wanted, I became more of a public artist – desirable, offering something of real benefit and available to others. The process took 20 years. The first step was to understand the needs of specific places and groups, then engage them in the process of thinking about what might work best in such conditions.

I still am the artistic director. In the participatory process I now go in with no ideas and see what happens. Soon, what is just a theme becomes an angle and this is the beginning of a new artwork. In a recent project at Charing Cross Hospital staff told us they would like something about the diversity of the working force. Our angle was to paint a collection of individual treasured memories where the staff had grown up in, the villages and local neighbourhoods. They gave us the theme, we found the angle and then engaged them in the process of visualising the new piece.

But that’s shifting too. In the community garden near the bridge in Telegraph Hill, the whole project took a direction of his own, I can see myself stepping back from it and the community taking full ownership of where it will go.

Which project would you consider your most successful one and why?

You tend to think your latest project is the most successful. But His and Hers is probably the most successful one. The success is the space that it occupies in the community, and how it’s become associated with Deptford.

In terms of social engagement, I’m divided. The work in the refugee camps is definitely one the most successful, and the hospital project was successful in terms of improving the lives of people the work was made for. Success is when a work delivers a change in the perception of the space and in the way that participants think of themselves in relation to art, the artwork and the art experience.

Fabric of Society was also successful as it precipitated a change of perception. It invited emotional contributions from our community and that later created the conditions for a successful community cafe. There are moments of innovation that make a work successful. The work in Pepys Estate we ended up asking people to vote for what they wanted to see on the wall and that worked really well for young people at risk.

The experience at Euston Station on the other hand is quite tragic. The people don’t look at the work. The mural is not engaging the public because it’s in a place where people are too busy trying to get somewhere else. That makes you think: what space does the work occupy in people’s eye and minds? It made me think that the way of working in local communities, slow working, makes the meaning of the artwork more tangible.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in the practice of a socially engaged artist?

One of the biggest challenges is to end up doing artworks that are not cliques, feeding people what they want. The challenge is to find something that people didn’t know they wanted but they do want when they see it being created. As a practitioner, cliques are a dead end. You need to find the common ground, which includes what you are interested in as an artist, then build a fire with it, create new energy and a new common good. Most people are not trained to think in images, they are not used to building images, so they want to control what they might mean and that feels contrived to the viewer. Another challenge is to detect what people can and cannot do and fill all the gaps and make people think they did it themselves.

The other challenge is to detect what are your challenges in each individual project because challenges shift. More and more I feel I don’t have to have all the answers at the beginning. I am fine with that. I can absorb the pressure of leading an uncertain process. You are leading a process in a dark room and you have to trust that the process is going to work and end up with something both everyone else and yourself can feel surprise, love and excitement for. As an artist you have to engage your aspirations in the socially engaged process.

The objective is to elevate what people can do and what I can do… then do something amazing together. What can really surprise us? Make us feel alive. And finding this at the end of a project is the ultimate objective of a participatory artwork.

How much of your work is commissioned as opposed to self-initiated?

At the beginning, Artmongers created two companies or vehicles, one that could respond to what was offered to us and one that was in a position to direct and create our own project.

You need to both create and find opportunities. You can’t wait, you need 2 legs to walk. You create them and after that project is done, it may help you find other opportunities or opportunities to find you. Sometimes you find the opportunity in a need and you need to make all the work to make it into an opportunity and that’s an interesting process, like  understanding who will pay for it, who benefits, who will want it to happen and who will oppose it and why.

How do you sustain your practice?

For me it was important not to have another job, although it became difficult for people around me when I didn’t have any money. It’s a difficult career and you have to expect to give something up. My motto is: Is better to have a good problem than a bad solution. How to make a living with your art is a good problem that can get you creative, having a side job is most likely to become a bad solution in the long run as it may be taking away your passion. It disconnects you. It’s a solution but not what you wanted.

How do you document, record and archive your work?

My website documents in simple ways the way the work that happened and how we thought about it. It’s a register of time and conditions in which the work emerged.

Social media is the dynamiser. There was a moment when the documentation became the work of art and I think there is a potential there to explore. The pictures of what happened when the artwork was made have an energy about them, they are alive in the same way the artworks are alive.

Do you deal with your website or someone else does?

After two home made websites, for the first time I’ve hired somebody to create a new website. We have a brand new website and haven´t done any updates yet. I need to learn how to use the new programme but I like doing it as I am very particular about the Artmongers voice.

Are you part of any formal or informal network that makes a difference in your work? 

Not really. Although now that I created the School of Muralism, that has benefitted us a lot. I took part in DeptfordX and that worked well. His and Hers came out of it. 

Are there any producers or commissioners that you think are particularly important in the SE practice?

I took the strategic decision to move away from the gate keepers of the art world. And I moved to local government, public organisations like NHS, Care and NGOs. If you develop an angle as an artist, the work will come to you.

Is there anything you wished you knew when you started your career?

I’m going to change the question around. In a way there was something I’m glad I didn’t know, which is how hard it was going to be. Don’t calculate how hard it’s going to be, it will be very hard. But don’t let that put you off. It’s also wonderful.

The precariousness is hard, not knowing how to pay the rent. You don’t know whether you are going to succeed or not and you have to dig into yourself and build your resilience, your thick skin. In the long run, I think patience is more important than talent.

What’s hard is that you see things in a certain way, you see the potential and the excitement of possibilities but the world doesn’t see it in this way. Success comes when others cannot help but see the world how you proposed in the first place. Once they cannot deny it to you anymore, not a second before.

List of advise for young people: it’s going to be hard so don’t sabotage yourselves. Try to cooperate with yourself in the process of advancing. Drink and drugs won’t help in the long run.

And don’t be in a hurry, the best things are slow.

Find team players, don’t do it on your own. 

I set up a company not as Patricio Forrester because people would have no place in it. My name is occupied. I was thinking of a tent, a space that people could come in or under and have an experience they didn’t have before. You need to create something others will value.

What impact has Covid-19 had on your work?

Brilliant. We found a way to be part of the solution. If you are part of the problem you are not going to make a living.

How is technology part of your work?

Before Instagram I thought if I can make people photograph my work on the streets, that would help infiltrate their networks and become a freebie. I had the idea or placing artworks in front of people so they would take their camera out and do shots of it and then share them with their family and friends.  This involves people using their own technology to access their network and I did this before social media. I’ve done some teaching and online participation. Technology is giving me the opportunity to work remotely, from another country. 

ID 1:  Empathy by the Bucket 
ID 2:  Artmongering in Lebanon 
ID 3:  Deptford Arena


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