The Nation Live/Engage
Work of mutual interest: Galleries and artists engaging with audiences through off-site projects
Wednesday 23rd April 2014, Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
The work strand of the project was based in Clydebank and was co produced with National Galleries and Visible Fictions Theatre Company. There had been a bit of groundwork, which started before I got on board. Therefore some ideas were already in place that I inherited – from the basis of the project – which was looking at National identity through these artworks and portraits to some other small fragments of initial ideas such as a travelling table or ideas of self-portraits. What was clear early on was that the companies knew what they required and the difficulty for an artist in this situation is how to get on board something that hasn’t been your idea but you know it’s something you want to get involved in I suppose this is a tricky situation and one that I’ve been in since where you are employed to make the artwork and it doesn’t come form you. But if it is something that is similar to your practice and your outlook and you’re excited about it, then you begin the project, you do your thing and then that’s where the real ideas start emerging.
Throughout the process of the project, responses were created with the community, with the people, and investigations were formed with the initial idea, and we were constantly redefining what the project should be at every stage – we weren’t bound by the confines of the brief and we weren’t shoehorning anything in to it. And I know that because it very quickly it becomes something else, and it became something that we couldn’t have predicted.
Working with a theatre company and a visual art company also meant that our ideas were sometimes a bit complex, but I worked side-by-side Richie and I think it was a genuine partnership. And because of that we always has one foot in each discipline and were very mindful throughout of each others focus.
The issue was that both companies wanted something at the end – a finished product. But both knew that this could be open and even something quite abstract. One thing I knew I didn’t want to do was a finished outdoor theatre performance. For lots of reasons – lack of rehearsal time and space, commitment from the participants, sound and staging issues the Glasgow weather, etc etc. So what we did we did was finished outdoor performance which was severely lacking in rehearsal, has issues of commitment form participants, had a few sound and staging issues and it pished down on the night. However, this is a really important lesson – it became clear that this outdoor performance had to be made in that place at that time in that way. It had to be on the site of the former shipyard and be performed by these people and it was important that an audience were present. It wasn’t planned, it wasn’t predetermined – the project grew and became something that we couldn’t ignore, so we had to go for it.
In terms of theatre projects and engagement projects there is always something of a disappointment when you go through a rehearsal or a series of sessions and then finished works aren’t staged, and although we can say it’s a rehearsed reading or a work in progress there is always something final about performance and audience in attendance. It is also more complex when community are involved – people feel like you can get away with it more – or you can make excuses because they are not actors, they can’t learn lines, they’ve never done this before. But I disagree with all of that. If you take a group of non-performers through a process and you expect them to do their thing in front of an audience and if you expect that audience to attend, to listen and engage with the ideas then you are looking at a final performance in that sense. Our final performance was faced with a lot of problems, and it was disappointing in a few ways. However, because this was part of a bigger project and because the piece was on-going it meant there other final products along the way. The group created a sound version of the performance which can be heard in the exhibition, the group attended an interim exhibition in Dalmuir where we discussed some of the findings of the project and we also got together for a mini performance at the launch of the exhibition. Now this should be the normal way of things – especially when working with people in a participation context. It’s right that we took them through all parts of the process and this is when we can see that it is a process. That each time we got together they were a bit wiser about the project as a whole and they could see it for what it was because they’d been through a few incarnations of a final product. They were more articulate about their work, they were more confident. So the process doesn’t end: I don’t want you to think that product and process are an either/or. That we get to last day of rehearsal and we go shit Charlie doesn’t know his lines – let’s just say it’s a process. It’s all a process and lets not forget the process of the product itself.
This is all about people and it’s all about community and it’s all about me in that community with those people. That to me is a very simple concept. And it seems strange that I’m asked the question why do you work with people. As a writer I’m interested in language, in linguistic structures, in text-based work, in spoken word and poetry, in direct address, in verbatim and personal narratives. These things are all people centric. It was maybe luck that I was employed to this project, and I happened to be a good fit, it was maybe I was sounded out – I don’t know. However even if I wasn’t interested in those things there is no way you can go to a community in Clydebank and not work with people. Clydebank is people. And I don’t want anybody to be cynical about this – this wasn’t a case of me landing in Clydebank and thinking oh I better work with some of theses people, or my idea isn’t working so I better get some of these people involved – it was the starting point. Conversations. I didn’t know very much about Clydebank and to my shame I didn’t know too much about Jimmy Reid. So I had to genuinely find out. I had to talk to people. And that’s why the project became what it was: a reconstruction – the text was made up of reconstructed text from the engagement with people as well as historical transcripts. Again all focused on the experiences of real people. Then we took those words and gave them to other people and it gave the words new meaning when they were spoken by a young person facing leaving school or an older person who used to work in Singers. It became a real reconstruction – I had to ask questions and I had to find information and I had to join the dots and I had to create something that was in the spirit of that history. And it was genuine – and the participants felt it – especially the younger ones – they were constantly confused at our interest in their area and their history – because as far as they can see it’s not worth investigating. Why would anyone be interested in a patch of waste ground where some old yard used to be? Why were we always asking them about employment? And I hope that by us taking an interest in that story they maybe realised that they story was worth telling. There is no way I would want to write that story as a writer or preconceive any of it. Or pretend to know what they wanted, or give them a wee play to watch. So why do I want to work with people? Because people are better storytellers and theatre makers than we are. And when it comes to the question of defining non-art people or the ethics of working with non-art people I totally can’t be bothered even having that discussion – because there is no discussion. Instead ask what are your ethics of being a human being and engaging with another human being? Because all people have the capacity to be an artist and if you’re not interested in people then you’re not an artist.
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