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The PASCO (Performing Arts Scene in Obrenovac) project has had significant effects on the cultural infrastructure in the Obrenovac municipality since the project started in 2009. Due to generous support both locally, Buskerud County in Norway and the KS funding programme of the Norwegian government, PASCO has had demonstrable economic, cultural and social impact on the region. The Aspire Trust, together with its Serbian and Norwegian partners had a critical role to play and this post discusses how that role was played out and what specific approaches were taken to achieve that success.

The Aspire Trust: a brief introduction

Aspire is dedicated to touching lives through creativity. Whether 3 or 93 years old, we offer a range of stimulating, innovative and challenging arts based programmes which will help people tell new stories, create new opportunities and learn new skills.

We were founded in 2002 as an Education Action Zone (EAZ) in the Wirral, UK  to help students in schools in deprived communities increase their educational attainment, attendance in school and attitudes to learning. It was so successful that when the EAZ funding ended in 2004, the Trust continued as an independent social enterprise and registered charity.  From its local beginnings in Wallasey, the Aspire Trust has grown into a truly international enterprise with links in India, the Middle East, Nigeria, and across Europe: most notably in Serbia, the Balkans and South East Europe.

What does  Aspire do?

The methodology informing our core activities is based on community arts based practice: a form which has been proven over many decades, in many different cultural contexts to have significant economic, social and cultural effects on local communities and economies across the world.  Whilst visible in the UK, the USA, Australia and many other countries across the world, it is also frequently prevalent in many parts of the world although its adherents and practitioners would not necessarily name it ‘community arts’ as such.

Its identification is made more difficult as its practice is hard to pin down and determine with any degree of clarity; it is  a concept which many people find hard to understand, sometimes equating it with amateur arts, arts activism or arts therapy.

However, we are quite clear about what we mean by ‘community arts’: it is arts practice which has a social purpose, uses high quality participatory techniques and is presented in a wide range of public spaces.   It uses creative and collaborative arts practice to identify the things that matter to people, to engage them in connecting them to their communities and the wider world and to tell tales that need to be told.

There is necessarily a fundamental connection between professional artists and communities in this process and that connection is characterised by people working together for a common good  – whether this be cultural, social or economic. It is not just about professional practitioners doing something ‘for’ or ‘to’ people; it is not just about teaching and learning new skills and it is not just about developing products and services which reflect particular issues that a community may face – although it may involve all of these things to a lesser or greater degree.

Rather, Community Arts practice emerges from the combination of social purpose, purposeful participation and production and promotion in public spaces: it is not a definable product or service which can easily be packaged up but a phenomenon which arises when a combination of people, places and politics coalesce at a particular point in time, space and history.

It is this methodology and approach we introduced to the PASCO project in 2009 and which we would suggest has been an important element of the success of the programme since then.

How did Aspire contribute to PASCO?

Aspire contributed knowledge and expertise through the following elements of the PASCO project:

Web design (Morning Movers) and Marketing workshops (October 2010)

Advice and Guidance on production of Christmas Show (December 2010)

Production of 2 short films made by PASCO participants (PASCO Film School, December 2010)

Delivery of workshops in performing arts for disabled people (December 2010)

Course design and delivery of the Autumn School, Buskerud (October 2011)

Shadow Theatre and Puppets workshops (May 2012)

Workshop on Partnership and Collaboration (November 2012)

Performing Arts workshops for UK based site specific production, Treasured (May 2012)

Cultural Exchange in Liverpool with students from FYR Macedonia (October 2012)

Furthermore, the results of other elements of the programme can also be viewed online:

Morning Movers short documentary film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ky209K2JdqQ

Visit to Liverpool as part of the Treasured project:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJWiwDoSilg

Short film: Kuda Ide Ovaj Zivot (Where Is This Life Going?):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYrTC_zTbVM

Short film: The Book of Life

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21HpzRJXtck

Thursday Beatbox short documentary film:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuajksxYFN4

Short film: Anti-Dream Candy

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WXrKYeDlxk

How did Aspire contribute to the success of  PASCO?

Aspire’s arts based methodology is based on community arts principles: arts practice which has a social purpose, uses high quality participatory techniques and is presented in a wide range of public spaces.  There are several implications of this practice for artists, teachers, practitioners and participants which we aim to address when it comes to participating or leading a project.  These are as follows.

Social purpose

Community arts practice is driven by a social agenda: this may involve attempting to address a number of social ills such as unemployment, social exclusion or cultural intolerance.  Whatever the motive, it is the social agenda that provides the ‘call to action’ for community artists, not the cultural agenda implicit in an ‘arts for arts sake’ model.

Participation

Community Arts practice depends on the ability of its practitioners to engage a wide range of people in a diverse range of settings, spaces and cultural contexts.  Frequently, they may be working with people for whom school and traditional, didactic ways of teaching and learning are not appropriate. Consequently, they need to understand that their strategies of engaging people in the creative process rely heavily on constructivist forms of learning: forms which are experiential, value the voice and experience of the participant and which are about facilitating peoples expressiveness and creativity, as opposed to instructing them.

Presentation

Without the element of presentation in community arts projects,  work becomes too process orientated and means that the audience from whom the work stemmed are unable to comment on or feedback to the artists and participants who were responsible for generating the work in the first place.  This issue is constantly referred to in debates of whether ‘process or product’ is more important in the community arts field:  our view is that both elements are equally important.  Presentation however does not have to happen in traditional platforms of the theatre or gallery; they can also take place in the housing block, the day centre or increasingly on-line via blogs, YouTube, Facebook or other social networking sites.  What is critical in this part of the work is that whatever is produced or published to the wider public has to be of the highest quality: not just its production values but with the necessary frameworks around the work which help contextualise the work to audiences who may not be  familiar with the background to a particular context.

Partnership working

We aim  to build effective partnerships between  artists, educators and participants.  By ‘partnership’ we mean the development of relationships which are based upon principles of co-constructing, co-delivering and co-assessing unique, challenging and innovative creative arts educational projects in which all participants’ voices are heard.   The principles we aim to adhere to behind effective partnership working are available on line at https://www.dropbox.com/s/na92hsteaiu2yef/effectivepships.ppt

Commitment to Professional development

We believe and are committed to delivering practice which extends and enhances teachers own  skills, expertise and approaches: if this occurs in a project, then the work has more likelihood of being sustainable in the future.   Therefore, where-ever practical, we offer  sustainable, innovative and rigorous continuing professional development  (CPD) programmes for teachers which focuses on the application of arts disciplines and techniques for the greater purpose of  pupil attainment, attendance in school and attitudes to learning. Arts practice in this context is of an instrumental nature, not an ‘arts for arts sake’ practice which values and privileges the voice of the artist over all others.

Programmes in which all partners learn from each other

PASCO programmes have not simply been a model of importing a UK skill set into a particular cultural context in Obrenovac: an essential part of the process for us has been the learning by our practitioners of other knowledges, skills and expertise which our Serbian and Norwegian colleagues have bought to us.  The process has particularly added to the richness of our experience and knowledge of Eastern Europe and this has been a vital element in the ongoing success of the project.

Programmes which challenge participants with high quality intellectual resources

Where-ever practical, we have aimed to critically challenge and support new approaches to theatrical and media production by all participants.  This entails a pedagogical approach which doesn’t just accept ‘first choice’ material when it comes to creating new work but continues to ‘raise the bar’ for participants and offer new and innovative methods of creative practice.

Offer long term relationships with partners

It has been important for us from the onset to see the PASCO project as a long term commitment by us to all the partners.  This has meant that we have been able to build on the work achieved and plan for different opportunities e.g. when funding streams come to an end.

Recast learners in new roles and identities whilst offering them new ways to articulate learner voice

This is perhaps the most critical part of the methodology we use: the need to allow other participants to redefine themselves and ‘find their voice’ in ways which have not been traditionally available to them.  This was most noticeable in the workshops run at the Disability Day Centres in Obrenovac and Belgrade in May 2011.

Future posts describe the development of the programme in Serbia and beyond and suggest possible horizons of what might happen next.