It’s been about 10 years since I last set foot in a proper community arts class. Sure, there’s been all manner of community based practice in all manner of places and contexts, but working with students offer you something else again, something extra and something that has a kind of vital, urgent quality to it.
There’s more at stake in one sense: if we get this right, then those students will take the work elsewhere and effect changes themselves. The catalytic possibilities of teaching community artists is perhaps mirrored only by those who train teachers (putting aside for one moment the Pavlovian implications of the act of ‘training’).
It’s been like trying to ride a bike again after having been off the roads only to find that the pleasant country lanes you used to amble down have now turned into dual carriageways and are infested by speed cameras.
Remembering all the necessary moves, the highway code and the thinking that’s necessary to navigate students through these processes has all coming flooding back in the strangest of moments. I’d forgotten the delights and possibilities of ‘gnomes, goblins and elves’ until the moment we started to throw ourselves around on the outdoor decking at the start of a foggy Norwegian morning in the middle of a large Norwegian Wood.
Of course, one of the first things you need to get to grips with early on is the dreaded name game; an attempt to elicit some information from your participants about who they are, where they’re from and what their favourite potnoodle is. This gets problematic sometimes when you set up the rules incorrectly so that some poor bugger at the end of a circle of 42 people has to remember everyone else’s names, gestures and personal morning habits. It gets even more problematic if you’ve spent many of your last ten years in bars of various descriptions only to find yourself with your memory shot to pieces, and unable to remember the name of the person who you last spoke to not just 5 seconds ago.
The advent of Facebook over the last ten years means that disclosure of yourself in this context is now a lot more problematic. There are now distinct possibilities, if you’re so inclined, for you to get to know much more about your fellow participants and workshop leader than they may feel comfortable with disclosing during those early first session gambits. You can find out various intimate things about them, read opinions about them and formulate your own idea about who you’re working with to a much greater degree than you could in 2001.
This is not specific to the community arts professional of course – but given the informality of the practice in general and its dependency on establishing equitable, respectful relationships, the influence of Facebook amongst the faces in front of you in that first session when you’re trying to remember everyone’s names, does lend another dimension to proceedings.
I’m reminded too, ten years on, that the naming of your fellow participants is not only the problematic naming ceremony in this neck of the cultural woods. The naming of the practice – “community arts” still causes many people to come out in a kind of ideological rash.
Community Arts – What’s that then? Was a common gag at LIPA ten years ago and it still manages to lead to endless hours of description, analysis and definition amongst everyone who finds themselves at the start of a teaching programme.
Its been recast as ‘participatory arts’; as ‘arts in a social context’; as ‘voluntary arts’ and all manner of other descriptions which desperately try to avoid the ‘c’ word. This is hardly surprising given how the ‘c’ word has been misappropriated by so many over so long; but nevertheless, the preponderance of alternatives never quite manages to kill the term, ‘Community Arts’, stone cold dead.
It’s also managed to have been completely written off the contemporary cultural education map since 2002 with the advent of Creative Partnerships and all its offspring and cousins. One argument goes that the basis of CP practice has been based almost entirely on an ethos that is found in the roots, practice and theory of community arts: but given CP’s unending anxiety about claiming that it was never just an arts education programme, it was never then going to admit openly that the arts practice it was predicated upon was that of the ‘c’ word. That would have been a naming gambit one step too far.