Date: 31 October 2018
Location: Free Space Project, London
Facilitator: Daniel Regan
Social engagement in action - Get-Together: Arts & Health - More than the sum of its parts.
Attending a symposium for socially engaged artists, inevitably I brought with me my old familiar neuroses, insecurities and anxieties, albeit adapted slightly to fit the context: I won’t fit in, I don’ t qualify as a ‘socially engaged artist’ - wait do I even know what a ‘socially engaged artist’ is? Can I actually call myself an artist given that I haven’t made work in months? There’ll probably be ‘networking’ involved - oh please not networking, I have nothing to offer that’s of any interest or use. Should I have worn something less eye-catchingly colourful?…You get the idea. Plus I’d agreed to write a blog for Axisweb about the symposium, which was part of its Social Works? programme of events and workshops geared specifically towards supporting the field of socially engaged artistic practice. So with the added fears that my dictaphone wouldn’t work or that I’d take illegible notes and screw up the task ahead of me, my anxiety was pushing me close to tipping point. I took my seat in a packed room at Kentish Town Health Centre feeling a fraud twice over, an imposter artist and an imposter writer.
Fortunately my worries did not get the better of me: I listened, I talked, I learnt stuff and had a few things of my own I could share with others, I even managed a bit of networking. By the end of the day I was pretty sure I was far from being the only person in the room who felt a little vulnerable or who was struggling with insecurity and anxiety. What’s more I’d come to appreciate that not only was I not alone in struggling with such feelings but I also didn’t have to keep them hidden in order to stand a chance of being taken seriously as an artist or professional. The success or even existence of my artist practice was not dependent on keeping it a safe distance from the reality of my fluctuating mental health. As I gained a greater appreciation for the nature of socially engaged artistic practice, I realised its relevance for my own future artistic development.
The day was spilt into a morning of presentations by four artists, including event organiser Daniel Regan, and an afternoon for discussion, pooling ideas, sharing knowledge, experiences and resources and establishing social connections. From the outset, Daniel stressed that the event was to be a collaborative effort, that its worth would be in the input of everyone in attendance, not just the scheduled speakers. We were urged to ask any questions that came to mind and contribute our own stories throughout the day: ‘We’re all from different backgrounds, so please do pitch in any knowledge that you’ve got - this is a sharing event, an event for everybody to speak up and and be heard and talk to each other.’ That encouragement to contribute and support one another set the tone for the whole day and fostered a sincere shared commitment to not only make the event a joint effort but to continue building on the social connections the event facilitated.
Daniel’s focus on ensuring everyone at the Social Works? event could have an equal voice reflects his passionate commitment to supporting other artists, whether that be through informal mentoring or sharing open calls and commissions, even if he is going for them himself. Struggling to meet like-minded artists after completing his art degree and as ‘a keen believer that if something doesn’t exist, make it,’ Daniel started a monthly peer group for artists interested in health to share current work and offer one another support - an invaluable opportunity for supportive social and creative engagement.
Many of the artists at the symposium have made work explicitly about health or illness, about particular physical or mental conditions they have experienced personally or which they have researched by reaching out to people who do. However, simply exploring health as the subject matter of art was not the driving purpose of this event. Throughout the day we pieced together a far more complex relationship between health and art, creativity, and the practical challenges of being an artist. The presentations in the morning session brought come crucial issues to the fore.
Photographer and Artistic Director of the arts and wellbeing charity Free Space Project, Daniel Regan described how, after years of struggling with his mental health, he discovered photography could help him to manage and process his feelings. The importance of this creative self-expression was vital; at university he was ‘making work to stay alive’. Daniel has used photography as a means not only to explore his own mental health but has also worked with people affected by suicide, mental health difficulties, homelessness and adolescents under section, among others. Drawn to projects which resonate strongly with his own personal history of mental illness, Daniel says that he is open about his experiences and does not feel like he has to hide them, he does not allow his difficulties to isolate him. As Daniel emphasised throughout the day, openness breaks down barriers and creates the possibility for connection.
For a recent project with Maytree suicide respite centre, Daniel met with some of the charity’s volunteers at their own homes, to take portraits and collect stories: ‘A key part of this project was using my own experiences to open the door to these conversations. When I went to meet with them I was really open about my experiences, about my past suicide attempts and experience of being in hospital. The more open I was, the more open people were with me in sharing their stories.’ Daniel’s own willingness to share encouraged the Maytree volunteers to do the same, leading to conversations that touched on deeply personal experiences of suicide, mental health and loss, conversations that wouldn’t have happened had he held back. Meaningful engagement was made possible because artist and subject connected as peers and things that are usually kept hidden and unsaid were brought out into the light, acknowledged, and mutually explored without shame.
For someone like me who is prone to worrying about how their mental health might be perceived by others, Daniel’s attitude and candour is inspiring. Having said that, he acknowledges that working with vulnerable groups you feel a strong identification with is not without its risks - such projects can be triggering and destabilising and so we need to be mindful of ensuring the work is not compromising our own health and wellbeing in the process of making it. Daniel plans to include funding for supervision into future grant applications for any projects where he will be working with marginalised vulnerable groups so that he can ensure he has support in place should he need it - a commitment to self-care other socially engaged artists should bear in mind.
Those of us who have struggled with our mental or physical health can feel nervous about disclosing this to employers, collaborators, commissioners etc. Many of us carry a fear that if we admit our areas of vulnerability we are liable to be judged as unreliable, a potential liability.
Though great strides have been made in society to tackle stigma around mental and physical illness or disability, negative stereotypes and judgments persist; being open about one’s difficulties and needs feels risky and so many of us stay guarded. As one attendee at the event put it, ‘I often feel that I’m never too far away from a burnout but I have this feeling that if I was to take time to take care of myself I’d be letting other people down. I don’t want to appear flaky’. Daniel Regan is emphatic about the importance of being frank with employers and work partners about your needs, and not feeling ashamed to say you need flexibility to manage your workload or to request a day off if you have become overwhelmed by stress and anxiety. Living in a target driven society where overworking is worn as a badge of honour, asking for flexible hours and time off for rest and recuperation can seem like an outrageous demand. However, there was wide agreement amongst attendees at the event that it is crucial we let people know the support and conditions we need in order to be able to do our work: ‘the more that we are open and frank about these things, it gives everybody permission to ask for the same flexibility and expect equal understanding’. What’s more, it is worth challenging the idea that rest and time spent prioritising one’s health necessarily equates to a lack of productivity. One participant at the event shared that when the condition she lives with flares up and she is forced to spend time off work in bed, ‘I have creative ideas that couldn’t have come my way if I'd kept busy. Solutions come to me without me asking for them. I realise then that those moments of retreating are actually godsends’.
For multi-disciplinary artist Zara Carpenter, making things has given her a concrete and practical way to keep going despite periods of ill health, thus aiding her recovery and helping her to process the traumatic and destabilising experiences associated with living with pain and illness. In her presentation, Zara spoke about the making of particular artworks being a ‘healing process’, not only because they became a vehicle to articulate certain preoccupations and fears, but also because the repetitive, ritualistic creative processes themselves, whether printmaking or the painstaking construction of a sculptural assemblage, offered her a different obsessive focus. Shifting one’s personal relationship with pain or illness through the process of making art is a recurring feature of Zara’s artistic practice. For example, her Painkiller Prints, created from the overspill of effervescent painkillers onto black card placed underneath her medicine cup: ‘Every time I needed to take a painkiller, I’d make a print. It changed the emphasis of me needing to take my pain away, to me creating something. I started to look foreword to it. So making the work took the pain away.’ Photographer and filmmaker Antonia Attwood had a similar experience when she embarked on a project using video to recreate her experience of panic attacks; making the work shifted Antonia’s understanding and experience of her anxiety: ‘Something changed inside my head. By making my panic attacks into an ephemeral object, by creating something from them, my relationship to those panic attacks changed. After that I didn’t have a panic attack for two years.’ For a separate project Antonia focussed on her mum’s experience of living with bipolar disorder. Again the creative process provided opportunities for greater understanding and connection between Antonia and her mother, enabling them to revisit and heal painful memories, and step into one another’s shoes in way which proved to be transformative.
Ongoing deteriorations in her health have forced Zara to change the focus and direction of her work, in ways that have not been easy to come to terms with. Loss of strength in her hands has meant Zara, a trained milliner, has had to give up making hats, the thing that made her happiest, leaving a creative void that ‘felt like a bereavement’. However, her determination to continue finding new ways to create has led her to develop a passion for printmaking, which doesn’t require the same manual strength and dexterity and on particularly difficult days parts of the process can be delegated to others. On the flip side of loss is discovery, the beginning of something new, the urge to create leading the artist to find a way to adapt. Clichéd as it may sound, anyone who has come through ill health, breakdown or grief will know that on the other side of vulnerability and weakness lies strengths we didn’t know we had.
For the fourth speaker of the morning, photographer and ethnographer Curtis James, building up relationships has been fundamental to his ongoing project with a community in East Brighton, and by far the part of the project that has taken the longest. He has set out to document a community but to do so by training up individuals from that community to be the researchers and ethnographers of their own lives. For his project, Curtis has returned to the council estate he grew up on, with an awareness of the negative perception of the community from those living outside of it, fuelled by stigmatising assumptions whipped up by the local press. He is interested in how passing on certain skills to members of the community to enable them to document and communicate the reality of their lives, can be a way of transferring power and agency to these individuals. By doing so Curtis is setting a process in motion whereby his participants will become the artists, ethnographers and authors of the work, makers not subjects; this is not just social engagement, this is social activism. The overarching question Curtis is hoping to answer with this project is whether this type of work can create any kind of wider societal change. Can the work of community researchers effect local council policies or the way services are delivered? Can the researchers trained to notice, document and communicate the reality of everyday life play an instrumental role in ensuring that the gap between what a community gets and what it actually needs is bridged? One of the outputs of Curtis’s project in East Brighton will be a manual, a guide for how anyone can conduct a project such as this and learn how to re-see the aspects of everyday life we have stopped noticing. Once complete he wants to share the manual with as many people as possible so that others can initiate similar projects across the country. It is a further reflection of Curtis’s egalitarian approach to making socially engaged work and his lack of artistic ego, that he is not possessive about his ideas or the methods he has developed. Broadening the reach of the project is Curtis’s aim and he will do so by passing on his skills and disseminating knowledge to others, whilst empowering people to recognise the value of their own life experiences, unique perspectives and expertise.
Curtis James’ enthusiasm for the idea that it doesn’t always have to be him doing the work, or as he puts it, ‘designing myself out of a job’, was inspiring and in any other gathering of creative types his selflessness and sincere commitment to skill-sharing would probably have stood out as unique and frankly radical. But this willingness to pass on the knowledge and tools needed to make things happen was in evidence throughout this symposium. The second half of the event provided an opportunity for everyone in the room to contribute their stories, knowledge and advice as we explored four themes: successes and failures, funding your practice, opportunities and collaboration. Among the attendees there proved to be a wealth of knowledge and a genuine enthusiasm for sharing expertise. Tips about sources of funding seemed to be particularly useful - those with plenty of experience of making grant applications offered guidance and advice to the those unfamiliar with the process; one participant even offered to email copies of his successful Arts Council applications to anyone who might find it useful to look at them. Alternative approaches to raising funds were discussed, including crowdfunding and the benefits of employment that can creatively compliment as well financially support your art practice - such as teaching and facilitating workshops. We shared practical advice and suggested resources, named useful mailing lists, websites and organisations which promote open calls and provide guidance to artists. We explored the pros and cons of working for free, how to put a value on your skills and creativity and ensure your contribution is not taken for granted. So too, in the field of socially engaged art, we thought about how we as artists recognise the value of our participants’ contribution. How can you endeavour to empower the people involved in your project, ensuring they are treated as collaborators rather than subjects? Curtis James is adamant he will not be involved in any community projects if the participants he is working with aren’t being paid. In his ongoing project in East Brighton, the residents he is working with are paid for the community research they do, they will have full ownership of the work and will ultimately decide how that work will be delivered and disseminated.
The afternoon was packed full of useful information and practical advice, an impressive collaborative effort to raise awareness about how to make and share work within this field. But what was perhaps even more useful was the act of sharing feelings and fears, the validating discussions around managing insecurity, anxiety and self doubt and the collectively acknowledged dread of ‘networking’ events. Over the course of the day the symposium had become a space in which it felt safe to admit uncertainty and the fear of failure, to discuss the challenge of connecting with others and promoting one’s work when you lack confidence, or are isolated due to ill health or depression. Finding your place and establishing a presence as an artist isn’t easy and it can be even more of a challenge if your mental health and emotional stability is fragile at best and resilience is not innate but requires a daily effort to cultivate. We rarely hear about the projects that failed, the exhibitions artist weren’t accepted for, the prizes they entered but didn’t win and, as irrational as it sounds, we can end up feeling like we’re the only ones who aren’t succeeding. The ‘Art World’ fosters a competitiveness that can be debilitating and gaining any kind of recognition seems to require a particularly tough-skin, a certain swagger, an assertive confidence and an energetic, proactive determination to make stuff happen - qualities that are near impossible to summon up when you are living with chronic pain or depression and struggling just to make it through the day. If we turn to mainstream art magazines or money saturated art fairs to find out what fellow artists are up to and whether their might be a place for us in amongst it all we are liable to be disheartened by an impression that there is one art career path to be trod and if you’re not recognised by the ‘Art World’ and can’t rattle off a list of notable gallerists who have shown your work, then can you even call yourself an artist. Well, that might just be my own neuroses talking, but whether you’re as insecure as I am, I’m sure you can recognise the intimidating behemoth that is the ‘Art World’, which in one form or another is likely to have an influence on your sense of self as artist, whether you engage with that world or not. So unless we discover that there are others like us we can be led to think we are a failure because we can’t quite master the ‘Art World’s’ rules of engagement.
‘I don’t even think about being in the Art World at all’, Daniel Regan says, ‘I’m in the Arts and Health World and that’s a totally different world, where everybody is lifting each other up. I don’t care about having my work in a gallery to sell it. My world is about health and how we take care of ourselves, and each other, using Art.’ And so it was that I discovered a supportive art community I could identify with, where the reality of my mental health struggles does not have to be something I keep hidden for fear of being judged. This felt like a genuine revelation and I know I was not the only person leaving the event that day with a renewed hope and optimism about the value and power of this new socially engaged group of like-minded individuals.
It can be difficult to bring together the separate aspects of ourselves, especially when you experience illness and can find yourself strong, competent and self-sufficient one day and fragile, overwhelmed and helpless the next. The periods of time I have spent in hospital following a breakdown have often prompted a huge outpouring of creativity and yet for many years I held onto the notion that publicly I shouldn’t mention my art and my mental health in the same breath. And so I kept my identity split and felt inauthentic as I switched between inhabiting different versions of myself - the patient or the artist - depending on the context. This event reminded me that this doesn’t have to be the case and any time I start to question whether I should hide my struggles I will think of Zara Carpenter’s Suit of Armour. ‘As a sick girl all my life, and then as a sick woman,’ Zara shared, ‘I always felt lonely and disconnected’. So she decided to make a work about invisible illnesses, aiming to raise awareness of the hidden mental and physical challenges so many people live with. Zara used invisible ink to hand print 7m of fabric with the hidden illnesses she asked people close to her to share. The fabric was made up into a suit, a Suit of Armour, a protective outer shell which under UV light reveals the true composition of the fabric, the reality of what’s happening on the inside. With a torch the viewer can examine the suit like a doctor examining a patient, discovering the names of invisible illnesses emblazoned on the fabric. What makes this work so powerful is that despite the dichotomy between outward appearance and inner reality, the contrast between the visible and invisible, ultimately the work communicates that the outer and the inner, the seen and the unseen, are not separate. The work poses the notion that our weaknesses are also our strengths, our armour is comprised of the difficulties we battle each day and our periods of sickness and vulnerability have just as much right to be seen as our moments of triumph and strength. It is a reminder to me that through art and creativity we can find connection when we feel isolated, or relief from pain, distress and anxiety. Art not only enabled Zara to communicate her sense of isolation but also offered a way of engaging with others who live with invisible illnesses and thus was both the vehicle for expressing and the means of easing feelings of disconnection.
The symposium was a particularly constructive form of social engagement in action. A hive mind in action, and one characterised by support and generosity. As advice was shared between people at very different stages in their career, coming from all kinds of backgrounds, the group of attendees became greater than the sum of its parts. An exchange of resources, skills and knowledge such as this, without competition or hierarchy, without judgment of those who are less experienced or knowledgeable than others, is rare. Judging by the buzz in the room, the event answered a real need.
As the event drew to a close we started to acknowledge the value of what had been taking place between us all that day, and discussion turned to how we could continue our conversations and strengthen links within this burgeoning new community, or ‘tribe’ as one participant described it. And so the decision was reached to set up an online message board, where the social engagement that brought the event to life can continue. Less than a week after the event Daniel had set up the Arts & Health Hub and once again provided a space for participants to continue engaging with others, offering support, sharing opportunities and developing collaborations that can be taken offline. A month after the event and the Hub is already a thriving and growing community, where members feel safe enough to refer to their health challenges and anxieties as well as their art practice. The success of the Social Works? symposium was in large part down to the hard work, organisation and facilitation of Daniel Regan, whose warmth and openness set the tone for the day. And it is thanks to him that we have a new space to keep up the momentum from the event and continue strengthening our connections. Speaking about her experience of collaboration, one artist in attendance at the event remarked, ‘Things that only finish when someone else participates are wonderful’. Reflecting on the event as a whole I’d have to agree with her, the only difference being that in this instance I am hopeful that participation has enabled the beginning of something wonderful.
About Katharine Lazenby
Katharine Lazenby is a multidisciplinary artist with a particular passion for photography. She is a Peer Tutor at the City & Hackney Recovery College, which supports wellbeing and mental health recovery through education and skill development, where she teaches courses in photography and creative writing. Having struggled with mental health issues since a teenager, Katharine now uses her first hand experience as a mental health ‘service user’ to help others in similar situations, either directly or through involvement in improving the provision of mental health and social care. She is a trained Peer Support Worker and has worked with Peabody Housing Association and the Institute of Mental Health to deliver accredited Peer Support Work training to a range of audiences, including service users, support staff and senior police officers. Katharine regularly works with Peabody’s Learning and Development team to co-design and facilitate recovery focussed Mental Health Training and workshops on active listening skills for Peabody managers and support staff. She is a volunteer for Maytree Respite Centre which supports people in suicidal crisis in a non-medical setting. Katharine also volunteers for the arts and mental health charity Hospital Rooms, which transforms inpatient mental health units with specially commissioned artwork from world-class artists. Her work for the charity includes co-facilitating art workshops for patients on mental health wards and documenting the charity’s activities in a weekly blog. Passionate about the design and management of mental health wards and the impact of healthcare environments on the wellbeing of patients, Katharine will be a keynote speaker at next year’s national Design in Mental Health Conference.
Free Space Project — freespaceproject.org
Zara Carpenter — http://www.zaracarpenter.com
Antonia Attwood — http://antoniaattwood.com
Curtis James — http://notkindacool.com
Arts & Health Hub — http://www.artsandhealthhub.org