Interview with Fiona Whitty – WhittyGordon Projects

Can you tell us how does social engagement fit in your practice and what event or single opportunity informed that change?

My work has been always socially engaged. During a residency at the Pistoletto Foundation in Italy back in 2008 I decided to do an MA in Fine Art and I applied at Chelsea College of Art in London. During that time, I met Jenny, she was in the same course, she is a painter. We got on very well together. Something about the Irish and Jamaican getting together clicked. We decided we wanted to do more work that was about involving the wider community in Chelsea. Our whole practice started from a Salon event that we put on in Chelsea. The first one was combining the Irish and Jamaican cultures and we asked Chelsea College staff to get involved: the porter, the receptionist, people brought in food and it was about recognising people’s hidden talent and everyone’s everyday creativity. It was a success. We liked the format of the Salon with discussions, screenings, music, performance.

We set up a collective with other classmates in college called Askew and we organised film night events in non-art venues across London, like pubs. We met hARTslane as well and asked them to host one of our Salon events. Students were going out of their comfort zone and taking risks and experimenting with different ideas that they didn’t have the chance to do in college. They were having the chance to exhibit work in a non-art space.

After that Jenny and I got funding for two years from Open Vizor to go to Jamaica and research about Irish and Jamaican connections. Then we got an ACE funding to make further research for another year. From there we started making films and working with deprived communities and we realised the need for art to tell people’s stories and we decided to set up WhittyGordon Projects as a Community Interest Company in 2014.

You have worked together for seven years now. Which one do you think was your most successful project? 

It’s hard to quantify work as a socially engaged artist as most of it is based on the process not on the final product. A lot of our products take years to complete. We have done a lot of research and a lot of footage in Jamaica, but we need to finish it and now we have to apply for more funding to have the film edited. We find it hard to find long term funding to complete projects.

The most ambitious project that we are completing now is with Anchor Hanover Housing, an intergenerational film work that we have done over two years funded by the Mercers Foundation. Its’ taking place in Hackney, in London. Their company is the largest company for social housing for over 55 in UK. They have a lot of wellbeing activities and they wanted to document how they can be a model to tackle loneliness and isolation for other organisations. Instead of writing a report they invited us to make a film to document these activities but also to involve young people to talk to older people as an intergenerational project. The result is a series of short films and one longer film documenting the 2-year journey and that’s going to be used by Anchor Hanover as an evaluation and to apply for more funding.

The reason why they got us in was that it was difficult for them to get the result across in a written report. The wellbeing manager said the film had a massive impact in reassessing the way they work and now they want to include film in their work and want us to be more embedded in the organisation to document their events and activities but also as a way to reduce loneliness and isolation as we are there talking to older people or having them to meet young people which is something they never do.

How did they choose you for this project?

It was the result of a smaller project. As it often happens, you get funding to go in for 6 or even 3 months but you don’t have enough time to sink in. We went in with a 3-month Lottery funded project that was about intergenerational work with young and old people in Hackney. We found this older people shelter accommodation and one day we met the Wellbeing Manager who was visiting the centre. She said she wanted this to be a continuous activity and we did a joint application to get funding from the Mercers Foundation.

And why do you think this was successful?

Because we had the opportunity for longer term funding, which was important.

We weren’t just parachuting in, doing a project for 6-12 weeks and leaving. We got to know the residents, we built strong relationships. Also, we are now working again with the Wellbeing Manager who wants to apply for more funding for us. She likes the way we work. The work has grown organically. We had more time and the freedom to shape the project in the way we wanted. We could take our own spin in the editing and it was a very inclusive way of working. But the main thing that impacted on us was the amount of funding and the greater amount of time we could spend on the project. 

The Edge of Invisibility is another example of a successful ongoing project. Originally, we got funding from the Arts Council to develop a film about women over 50 who are isolated and we wanted to change the perception about them, change the negative stereotypes, show that women over 50 are very independent and want to live their lives on their own terms. We then applied for the Relay 6.6 residency at hARTslane, and we met other women and produced a film that will be part of The Edge of Invisibility. We are now trying to get more funding for more workshops with the same group of women.

The residency gave us the opportunity to have a base, which we often don’t have. It felt a safe and inclusive space. We got great support from the organisation as well, and maybe because they are women, that helped too. It was an organic process, it grew naturally. So many people got interested in the project and wanted to have more of it.  

Are there any lessons that you have learned from working on your projects?

I started a new job as a Culture Development Manager in an organisation called In-Situ, in Pendle. They are all about social engagement and collaboration. Which is great because there are not many organisations that understand the needs of the community. There is a need for a longer-term investment in engagement so that people find out what the problems are, what the issues are, what the community actually wants. They often don’t want a 6-week painting or drawing project, they want something more long term.

There is a need for more investment and appreciation that is a process that doesn’t happen fast. Many funders want to see a turn-around in 3 or 6 months. You need 3 years to see real results. You need to build relationships and trust. 

We do most of our work in Hackney, which is where we are based. As WhittyGordon we try to see where there is a need and we try to fill the gap with film making.

And how do you do that? Do you engage with people on the street? 

Yes sometimes, and I quite enjoy it. It just takes a while since you can start talking to people and with Covid now is even more difficult. In a previous project in Barking, we spent a few hours every week going around and talking to people. Gradually we got to know the shop keepers and business owners who are the link into the community. This is more effective than randomly talking to people in the street.

Talking to people is a skill. And not everyone has it. I talk to people who can then go and reach out to other people in the community.

What would you recommend to an artist who want to do work in this field?  

The way in for us is often the Lottery Awards for All applications, which are so much easier. It’s like a 10k pot of money to start off the project. From there we start meeting people and building the connections to apply for larger funding and Arts Council funding. Definitely start off small and collaborate with partners. You can’t really submit an application without partners and community connections. You have to find them even before you start, maybe through volunteering.

How does being a duo / small group benefit your work?

It helps that me and Jenny are also best friends! We bounce ideas to each other. We are able to support each other. Now I’m splitting my time between London and Manchester and we are trying to find best ways to work together. Also, we don’t have a board or too many people involved, that can be time consuming. 

How do you sustain your practice?

I’m working part-time as a cultural community manager. Jenny is a painter and she has a studio in Hackney. We divide our time, 2-3 days independent work and 2-3 days WhittyGordon.

We realise how difficult it is to survive as freelance artists and running the company alone. So for the moment having other jobs allows some variety and security and it means we are not consumed by the organisation

Do you deal with your website or someone else does?

At the moment we have a Squarespace website that we haven’t updated in a while but we need a revamp and to get more SEO. Especially during Covid we looked at how can we change our business, how can we reach more people. For example, we want a function on the website where people can book workshop sessions with us online.

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

As a socially engaged artists there are not many organisations that support your work or that we can talk to. Artsadmin really helped when we were writing applications to the Arts Council. We used to pay for a membership. They reviewed the application.  And there is an assigned person within Arts Council called relation manager who can be helpful as well.

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

I wish I had more training in marketing and business side and in how to run a community interest company: the business planning, the forecast, the financial side of it. Also, I wish I knew how to run and maintain your art practice and had better digital skills to do the website and video editing.

ID 1: Intergenerational project in London
ID 2: The Edge of Invisibility
ID 3: In-Between Spaces, Jamaica 2011