Plenary 1. Is the Gallery a School? - Rethinking education and its uses
Published: 27 November 2015
As a ‘graduate’ of a peer-led youth program at Tate, and now freelance artist educator and play worker, I have a vested interest in ensuring the crucial nature of childhood doesn't become a marginalised issue, and believe in the potential for brilliant interventions in the field. But as councils slash budgets across the UK and public services begin to strain or crumble entirely, I wonder now more than ever what the role of participatory arts could have in improving childhoods in 2015. This year’s engage Conference in Glasgow brought together colleagues from all over the world to ask each other how to adapt and learn for the future.
Power Play: The ‘powerlessness’ of childhood is something that has been experienced by all of us. In fact, Darren O’Donnell of Mammalian Diving Reflex says that none of us have really left childhood behind and ‘achieved adulthood’, suggesting that we are merely imitators of this socialised category (and I think most of us agreed). Darren’s participatory projects presented a shimmering, utopian idea of young people and adults sharing social capital, forming partnerships and creating value systems that ignore age; he suggests the arts sector as a good place to start implementing the plan. Projects really can and should connect young people with adults in the local community in meaningful, long lasting ways.
I loved his concepts of truly non-hierarchical practice I was reminded of radical youth worker Brian Belton mocking the idea that adults are consistently trying to get young people to be ‘a bit more like us’. Darren is calling for us to break down the authoritative barriers that that block intergenerational bonding, and I totally agree- the possibilities are endless.
So then the question of ‘Us’: Who are ‘we’, with whom are we working, and for what goal? Several speakers presented on the homogeneity of the arts world and expansive ideas on diversity and outreach- Dr Esther Sayer’s paper talked about participants in young people’s programmes mostly looking ‘like me’, and questions whether or not peer-led formats have a limited range (in terms of diversifying audiences), as the social nature of them means that similar types of people are engaged.
However, as artist Barby Asante asked, what is it that diversity initiatives demand of participants? Asante, with artists from sorryyoufeeluncomfortable Collective invited the audience to reflect on the perpetually socialised, classed and racialised categories of people that are considered to have potential in the arts. It is our responsibility to consider the intersection of access and young people’s agency in gallery (and all other) contexts, as everyone is entitled to meaningful cultural participation.
Artist Annette Krauss talked about the need for true transparency, and the concept of showing both the ‘back and the front’ of a gallery, applying critical pedagogy and the unlearning process through radical gallery-based interventions. She shows playful images of a gallery ‘cleaning project’ that involves the gallery director emptying dirty buckets of water, and it gives me hope that institutional hierarchies do have the potential to adapt and change. I want to be a part of it.
With some closing remarks on really accountable evaluating processes from Roz Hall, and the possibilities of participant-led critique embedded in the delivery of projects, the packed two days has come to a close. What a joy it was to be in a room full of people with shared values that centralise around the idea that participatory art is ultimately a good thing. Let's learn to take more risks to figure out ways of working with young people in dynamic, experimental ways with lasting effect, and continue to fight for the rights of all young people in the arts.
Huge thanks to Rose, Ailbhe and Simon and all at Engage and Axisweb.
India Rose Harvey
Notes from Brian Lobel's Artist Thinking presentation
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Published 27 November 2015