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