Creative Margins Manchester: Luggage Tags

  • Social curiosity
  • A better understanding of the reality of the youth sector, and create time and capacity for conversation and partnership
  • Workforce reflective of community
  • Provide the magic
  • Advice and knowledge from the experts and an understanding of yp needs
  • To realise that their language of aesthetics is only one among many languages
  • Time outside of ‘projects’ to get to know each other
  • Allowed to take risks
  • Develop an understanding and awareness of how you help them and young people meet their aims
  • Preparation time, training – built in and paid for – understanding each other’s values/ ethics
  • Need to value the contributions of young people and want to work with them
  • Financial support! Time to build meaningful bonds of trust
  • Resources built in for relationship building
  • Resources partnerships
  • Need to value the experience and value of working with young people that youth organisations have.
  • Relevance
  • Listen, disturb, disrupt, listen
  • Time and trust
  • Payment and time to talk to the young people about what they want
  • Find the “right fit” with partnerships – groups are out there and crying out for creative interventions
  • Financial investment – an understanding from the as to the meaning of why they do what they do
  • Make the language and terminology accessible

What are the right conditions for effective, creative collaborations with young people?

  • Honesty
  • Trusted, safe, plenty of inspiration
  • Trust
  • Feed them
  • Creating a safe space and room to be yourself
  • Safe spaces – take the art to them!
  • When you say you’re gonna listen – you LISTEN!
  • They start with young people, in their space, when THEY CALL OUT
  • Both sides willing and open to learn
  • A willingness to share power. Not having a set idea of outcomes. Trust for young people + what they’re capable of.
  • Keep it fun and positive
  • Good food, good space, good + consistent (wakers/waters?!)
  • Creating an environment where young people can shape, design, inform, change, have “genuine” ownership of the project/ work
  • Welcoming and open environments
  • Respect, safe, flexible, freedom, opportunity to take control/ lead direction of project
  • Lots of time – pizza helps!
  • A benign space of affirmation
  • Mutual respect, for the young people to feel creative autonomy
  • Trust, respect, enjoyment, food

What does marginalised mean?

  • Excluded
  • Systemic barriers which prevent the engagement of people due to characteristics or circumstance which isn’t their fault
  • On the fringes – unable to participate due to economic and social circumstance
  • !Hard to reach?!
  • ‘Marginalised’ means being pushed out, ignored and treated with contempt
  • Lack of voice, control and visibility
  • Across a margin
  • Not having an automatic place at the table
  • Outside
  • To be disempowered and then held in contempt for your powerlessness
  • An easy way to describe someone we don’t understand
  • Left out, devalued, patronized, disempowered
  • Invisible, ignored
  • Othering

What does the youth sector need to be able to work effectively with artists?

  • Clear and non jargon explanations and descriptions
  • Understand the process is more than just the ‘Arts’
  • Funding to be able to engage the artists and pay them appropriately
  • Capacity! Full appreciation and understanding of their skills and expertise. To be involved in initiating projects and not just seen as gatekeepers.
  • To exist, to be recognised as important, to be valued as having a different yet complementary role to artists
  • Hold spaces, groups, lives
  • Access to creative networks, what’s out there, how can we cross collaborate
  • Social curiosity
  • Budget, time, quality provision
  • Open mind – but with a side of practical planning.
  • Preparation time conversations led by young people, a willingness to take risks
  • Budget to support y.p’s access needs
  • Money, trust the artist, space, need to revalue the arts and see it as important

Tell us about boundaries and what they mean in a partnership between an arts and youth sector organisation.

  • Money – trust – power
  • “Results” led delivery, what’s a good “session”, a good “result”
  • The distinction between two different orgs being able to contribute different but converging things – financial, emotional, creative etc
  • Respect
  • Understanding + respect of+ for where each other’s expertise start and finish
  • Money, relationships, safeguarding
  • Different yet equal
  • A clear understanding of each other
  • They are not always real and certainly not made in stone
  • Boundaries acquire meaning through the process, points of separation and points of exchange.

Creative Margins – Manchester

The second meeting of the Creative Margins network was held at 42nd Street on 5th July 2018 

The second Creative Margins meeting had the theme: ‘Co-production, collaboration and the rebalance of power.

The group’s discussions took place following an introduction to the history of the centre – 42nd Street.

Prof. Kate Pahl (MMU) shared her experiences of co-producing research with young people using arts based methods. To read Kate’s publications click here or follow her on Twitter.

 

Janet Batsleer (MMU) gave us an over view of het paper titled “Practices of Friendship: Youth work and feminist activism in Manchester’.

Download (PDF, 9.87MB)

We remembered that it was an 70th anniversary of the NHS by recalling Nye Bevan’s roots on the miners’ Tredegar, south Wales. Gabrielle reflected on the way miners in the south Wales valleys had looked after each other during some of the longest strikes in the 1920 and 30s by creating collective meals. The men dressed in their best clothes to serve other men, women and children meals which had been cooked by the striking miners and their wives and families themselves. This was an early form of social security and that went on to inspire the collective medical insurance started in Tredegar and became the model for the NHS.

Click on image to listen

The group discussions: creating new knowledge together

The group discussions comprised of small group of about five people (see below) and a larger group with approximately twenty five people from many organisations, such as arts organisations, youth organisations, activist artists, free lance and contact artists, creative and academic form youth work and education (see attendance list below).

The participants were from organisations and charities that work with marginalised young people, art practitioners and activists, academics in youth work and education.

Group Discussion

The focus of the discussion was – young people, co-production, collaboration and the rebalancing of power.

We used the phrase from Donna Haraway’s latest book ‘Staying with the Trouble’ to help us to not steer away from difficult issues.

The first person to speak remarked – Young people do what they know. When do you intervene? When do we as adult feel we have then right to make an intervention?

Artists work hard to listen to young people and create with what they find.

Examples were recalled from working with young people through music such as rap. Musicians can take what young people say and put it into a different beat, ‘Sometimes they want their specific words written down, we want to leave their words’.

We spoke of what to do when the words are raw, and express emotions that are full of anger, or are in a more general sense ‘not acceptable’.   We recognised that ‘giving the words a differ beat’, is one way for staying true to these emotions yet rendering the expression into a form that is able to be widely communicated. The form of rap has its own legitimacy.

Expressing the un-expressible through art

We also spoke of what lies below the words ‘they use’ that points to something more, something other than what is conveyed through the specific words, and how and if art and music can get at those possibly wider, hidden meanings. We know that what can be expressed through words is often only the tip of a much bigger iceberg. Sometimes the anger points to issues that are not articulated, or even, not able to be articulated because there are no words, accessible tropes or known forms of expression to capture this stuff. Some of us recognise these unspeakable things – as the inter-generational transmission of troubles that belong to history of the places where the young people are growing up. Such ‘un-expressible’ issues include post-industrial loss of meaningful employment, communities that have lost a major employer, such as a factory or mill that has closed, the effects of austerity politics and the loss for example, youth facilities to support marginalised young people, or schools that only reward the articulate and ‘academic’ forms of knowing.

Pace

We spoke about pace. We spoke about the pace needed to work with marginalised young people and the pace of project funding. Sometimes, in arts organisations, ‘it feel like you are walking a plank’. You have to apply for funding to work with marginalise groups that has a specific, often short-term, time frame and yet you have to try to spend the time required to build trust with young participants. The pace of the art project is often out of step with the pace at which you need to work to genuinely co-produce with young people. You need to go at their pace and yet the funding requires you to go faster. There is a great tension.

Yet, another suggestion was that sometimes when the required pace of the project drives us all, including the young people, they do step up to the mark. As they are driven by the time frame, unexpected things happen. We have a sense here of an external time-line, providing a framework that somehow carries the creative process – and that both the artists and the young people become regulated or driven by this and so produce something in an unexpected way. The regulation of time becomes part of the process of making and possibly adds a sense of urgency that can sometimes be productive.

An example of a Free Drawing process

Someone gave an example form a project on Free Drawing. The process of free drawing has a number of steps. ‘We encourage the young people to be the authority’ (of the steps). We have a sense here of the artist teaching or passing on the technique (a series of steps) and then enabling the young people to own the process. ‘Once they are comfortable with the process, we can get them to create pieces at a large scale for example a 3m X 5m picture/piece’.

‘We push the process through’

They (young people) do have to practice.

‘We invited the Fire Service in (to contribute the art making process’, (through talking about their perspectives on fire).

The example drew our attention to the techniques that artists have that they pass on or share with young people. There is an active pedagogic process (techniques) yet it is possible for young people to own these and use them autonomously from the artist. The example of the Fire Service suggests how other people, in this case adults who may have specific issue with young people, (who maybe start fires) joining in and became part of the creative process. In some situation the entry of the Fire Service might become confrontational, yet when the process of creation is the anchoring referent, then the Fire Service can contribute a point of view that becomes generative rather than confrontational. This is an example of how the process of creating founded on a series of steps (a technique) enabled a potentially discordant adult perspective to come into the mix. This example illustrates how the process of artistic creation (in contrast to talk and spoken debate alone on their own) can create a space for contrasting perspectives.

Feeling uncomfortable

Yet, the Pace of art projects can be uncomfortable. Often art projects are funded for short periods like four weeks or even one week. Such time frames create intensive projects but can create a sense that ‘we are pushing and pushing… according to our professional expectations’. Young people respond to this in different ways. Some can recognise the need to work intensively to produce something tangible at the end.

Aesthetic quality

We spoke of the need to push for quality. Many artists are concerned that, when working with young people, the end product has to be of a high quality. They expressed the need to recognise that the art work needs to be understood as having aesthetic qualities, ‘not something they are producing for a friend’. The art produced needs to be able to stand up to public scrutiny and be something that displays aesthetic qualities. The aim is to enable young people to recognise and own the aesthetic worth of the art piece.

Curious Minds: giving power away

As a publically funded organisation, if we accept public money, we have to be politically neutral. However, if the art is the young people’s expression, we can shift power so that it is theirs. Young people have a way to say things that shifts power. If it comes from them, as art workers. We can give power away, and this gives us more power.

Democracy of process

A example was given of an art project in Edinburgh working with marginalised young people. ‘It started with us playing with Paly Do’. We were creating models of ‘their everyday lives, encounters’. A little model appeared of a person smoking a splif. An adult wanted to remove the model from the exhibition. We need to have a democracy of process and a democracy of products.

So many purposes for art

There are so many different purposes for dong art. We need to get some understanding of what we are doing. Some purposes for using art might be educational, some discursive, some to listen to views and some to produce a ‘product’. Sometimes art is a therapy, it enables young people to express themselves, then we can take the art to a different place. We need to decide have we captured a different process?

It might be about coherence, but this can force an agenda. We need to have a conversation with young people about we have captured. We need to talk to young people.

Focus on the friction between the young people and the artists

We need to note the purpose of the art early on. We need to start by knowing if young people have been spoken to. As an artist, you can talk with the youth worker. The youth worker will still be there when you, the artist, have disappeared. We need to discuss this multi-agency working and understand where the boundaries are.   We can have a conversation to work out what roles there are for the youth worker, the artist and the young people.

Tensions between art and power

An example was given from the Men’s Room, Manchester

Thinking about art as politics.

As soon as we bring politics into it, we enter another realm.

Arts as arts sake..

Activism – is about power.

It has a subversive functionality

This is difficult – it is knotty to work through.

Social class, activism.

Where is the balance? E.g. – for a person who is homeless, or who is a sex worker?

How can you reach a balance?

If a person is not in power.

It has to be about taking power back.

If you put a (homeless) person’s art in an art gallery, but it has not changed the life of that person? What are we doing?

Another example

In 42nd Street

A project on young people and marginalisation.

The project was based in school and asked what they did not like about school.

It was not initially an art project.

Young people were in crisis, they had no voice, no food, no power.

They had to learn to put a sentence together, they had to learn to create something.

Making art is like learning to put words together. The process (not the product) is most important.

The spent five days in a room, which is difficult when you come from a home where there is no constant, not daily rituals to organise time.

The project was about creating a voice.

We had to pick up on little hints. This involves skill.

We found out what they did not want to do.

For example, sometimes they did not want to do certain activities.

Another example

In an activity with young people, we asked the mayor to come to the final performance. He told them which track he liked best.

Someone else said, they though that was too functionalistic.

And another said, what if no one comes to their performance?

The outcome is awesome, but the process is the really important thing. Process can have a massive benefit. It’s the journey, arriving – is the last day.

If you what the work to be celebrated, you have to give young people tools.

How do we create enough time and space and tools so the young people are genuinely able to co-produce?

Funding

Funding is really important.

We need to evidence why it matters.

We need funding for six months to a year to do a good job by young people.

But that can rule out lots of funding sources

Some of us do it by stealth.

Someone says, ‘I try to monitor what I ma doing, to slowly gather evidence. We need to show why art therapy matters.’

The process is everything.

We have to evaluate it.

Young people as creative agents

In 42nd Street, we let them create an exhibition.

They wrote the brief for a possible call out, short listed the artist and chose one, changed the brief to create the criteria – that it had to be a ‘young artists’ (aged under 30 years) and it had to be an artist who had never exhibited before. They interviewed the artist.

This process transformed the artists understanding of how to work with young people.

Who is an artist?

This example led us to discuss- who is the artist?

How do we set the boundaries between who is the artist and what gets created?

Communication is a key word here.

You can’t just bring young people into a room and leave them with an artist.

Its about all the people in the room, giving something to the young people.

It’s a kind of artist Ping-Pong process. You become as aware as possible to what joint understandings can develop. We provide skills.

It’s a kind of action-research loop.

Youth worker asked to provide ‘young people’

Can I just set back from the process for a bit. We get phone calls every week – people saying we have a project, can you give us some young people. We are doing a play about bi-polar.

I say ‘No’.

We need an alternative model to ringing up your local youth centre.

We heard from the Lowry

We had to day, it depends what you your project is.

We need to work in a very different way. We need to start with the young people.

They are the Starting Point!

Ethical issues

These are ethical issues. They involve knowing yourself, knowing your organisation and following the need to chase funding.

We could have:

Step 1; Does this work start from my ethos?

Step 2: Do I have friends within my networks (who have contacts with marginalised young people)?

It can sometimes be good to chase money, but the problem, we then have to call on the kids.

You should be working in partnership with arts organisations.

There should be a period of R&D when we spend two months working with young people.

But how do you do this?

You can have a creative agent. I go to them first.

In 42nd Street, if the kids don’t like you, then they just say ‘no’. If they don’t like it, they won’t let you in.

The role of the outreach worker

We are a homeless charity.

What if people are homeless?

A major problem is loneliness.

Maybe arts organisations are trying to do too much?

What is the role of the arts organisation?

How do we (outreach worker) know what they are doing?

We should work towards what we are good at.

We should not be doing a botched project, that we are no good at.

Youth worker

We do work with artists.

We often start with – food, ground rules and then the art.

It all depends on what the young people’s needs are.

We should heed Claire Bishop’s idea – that we should resist the injunction to make things better.

Artist are often the researchers, they are seeking to explain.

They can open up a space.

A space that can validate young people’s knowledge.

We should be aware that it is the academic that benefit from working with young people.

Youth workers – especially those working in Youth Centres – are the gate keepers.

Someone once described the ‘Men’s Room as – ‘A social club for misfits’. It is the only place they can go to that makes them feel normal, where they don’t have to pursue ‘getting better’ – or worry about costing other people’s money.

Coming from the place of not-normal

I grew up in a Pit Village. I was made to feel I did not talk properly, or look right. Sometimes people made me feel I was not ‘normal’.

I washed up in a youth centre, my journey took me to adult education.

I am also a free-improvisation musician.

I have noted two tensions in our discussion today.

How do we operate with love… make loving interventions as artists?

How do we operate with loving integrity, with others, as activists?

I learned this from my work (punishment) in FE collage.

I was given the kids who smashed the school up, the ones that the behaviour support team could not manage, the hardest kids.

We hung out alongside each other, smoking, talking, getting a bus out of the collage when the kids were pissed off. Gradually, we created a community, we started to get better. I got better. These 14-16 year olds created a beautiful, generative space. It took time.

Washing up as an artist, I am serious about what I do. It’s hard and easy.

Coming from that place, I see we need loving integrity. It will take no prisoners, it is as serious as life.

  • There has been a slow amelioration of trust
  • Concentrated and focused aesthetic experience

Every move we make, so long as we see, that everything we say, every gesture, is related to love… what Lauren Berlant calls ‘a proper love’.

Lauren Berlant reminds us of a ‘cruel optimism’

Trust has been eroded.

The main discussion came to a natural end with this insight. Then we went round the group and asked if those who had not spoken wanted to say anything?

Some issues raised at the end:

Question – which is it – a form of expression or art?

I want to ask – what is that people want to explore when they make art… is it expression, or to make art?

How do we find the time and space to work out if that is what is happening?

At 42nd Street we have been working with young people for years. It is there, you can access it, if you want to.

Youth Organisations looking to expand young people’s creative repertoires/ knowledge

Another Youth Organisation, (‘You Can’ Located in Salford) said, we are constantly looking for programmes we can offer young people.

It is difficult to find the hook (to hook young people’s interest) from my point of view. I would love to get art practitioners in there to do the art, to see what engages them, to do their art, to see if that engages them in a positive way. Come and offer your media, we do consult with them (the young people), but it is about the limits to their knowledge, their experiences.

If you don’t know something exists then you can’t choose it. Young people need to be made creatively aware.

We can feel guilty as artists – what is the legacy and who benefits?

Another art educationalist working in a dance company said, ‘we do feel guilty as an arts organisation, when we put young people through a process and then leave.’ In might have ben a great project and then we leave. For example, we have had sold out shows. Then there is the ‘come down’. There is no programme legacy and there could be. Too much happens like this, we have to chase the next grant and we don’t have the time, funds or expertise to do the ‘after care’.

Another artist said, ‘I put things out there’ that is a kind of legacy. I try to put the young people first. I try to ‘pass it on’.

We do try to ‘put it out there’ but there is not real infrastructure to support a legacy, it is very ‘bolted on’ – we don’t work together enough across organisations and institutions to make enough opportunities for the legacy.

We are a touring company, so we are in an even more difficult position. It is hard to know what counts as a ‘legacy’, and especially for the young people we work with.

It just so happens that the company is making a BBC documentary with young people in 42nd Street at the moment. The programme is being made by the artistic director and Darcy Russell.. so this work will create a legacy in terms of a documentary on dance and mental health. What can ask the BBC to pay for resources for the young people as the basis for making the documentary – so that the young people are supported. We have made a number of requests and transaction with the BBC.

The second group discussion: 

We starred our discussion by asking – ‘Where are the young people?’

Co-produced spaces

Why are they not in the room (actually a few of them were in the main room – see later).

We discussed differentiated spaces. – those for young people and those for adults.

We asked – who shares what place?

In co-production participates are supposed to have equal value.

What might we mean by a co-produced space?

Managing Risk

When working with large arts organisations, who takes responsibility for risk management?

There is a need to clarify issues around – duty of care.

There can be conflicting understandings between larger social care organisations and smaller organisations. Who gets a place at the table?

Project ending – and legacies

This also came up in the larger group discussion (see above).

Our thinking about legacy maybe should be oriented towards the young people as participants rather than directed at particular activities and products.

Sharing Power

When it comes to sharing power – we need to recognise that there are different ways of communicating. Young people tend to be very oriented towards technology and virtual communicative networks.

Adults tend not to be very good at networking and mobilising via social media.

One way to share power might be to recognise the importance of social media and virtual technology and make this a more central process.

We need to consider the technological expertise that young people possess which might help towards employability.

In our art projects we could consider:

  • Pathways to employment
  • How we take influential decision for and with young people
  • Editing – who does it and how it is done

An example: in a film making project;

We set up a convention that young people only edit their own takes and not the footage taken by others.

We also suggested that they did not have to edit their work – this gave them ownership of their own words and control over how they were represented.

Cultural tastes

It is important to recognise that we can sometimes make assumptions about what kind of art young people want to have.

A seat at the table 

We invited Ella Otomewo to listen to our conversations through the day and respond in spoken word.

Are there enough seats at the table for me?
Or am I going to have to awkwardly squeeze myself onto the corner again? Make myself smaller again,
and more palatable?

Not having an automatic seat at the table does not mean I expect you
to feed me from a silver spoon.

You can disrupt the table!

Disrupt the heavy expectations sitting dusty next to the silverware. Where mouths have been
force fed what to say.
Don’t ask me to be real

and then get angry
when I’m not your favourite version of myself.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here. Like teaching to an
open ear,
or a pen in hand.

Let’s have a show of hands
for anyone who’s ever woken up
knowing that their best idea yet
is dissolving away with last night’s dreams.

Luckily for us
there is ample time to redo our mistakes,
and meet each other at the place where we have fallen down. Meet me where I think I’ve failed
and I’ll meet you where you start.
Meet me at the heart of it.
Meet me in trust
and let me speak as if you weren’t there,

but as if I had invited you.
I do invite you.
I hope you keep inviting each other

Gabrielle Ivinson 

 

 

Attendance list

Lauren            Wilson University of Manchester – student
Steph Meskell-Brocken Peshkar, Manchester Histories
James Duggan Manchester Metropolitan University
Christine Bogard Wythenshawe Community Housing Group
Laurie Peake Super Slow Way
Helen Spandler UCLAN
Geoff Bright Manchester Metropolitan University
Lee Brennan The Lowry
Debra Walker The Royal Exchange
Rajesh Patel Manchester Metropolitan University
Carys Williams Greater Manchester Youth Network
Quina Chapman The Royal Exchange
Ali Roy UCLAN
Nathan           Powell 20 Stories High
Kate Pahl Manchester Metropolitan University
Ellie Nicholls Walk the Plank
Tim Wheeler
Sandra           Abreu-Bourne You Can
Fergal McCullough Men’s Room
Beth Powell Creative City
Chris Brett Reclaim Project
Ed Watts University of Manchester
Kate Goodrich Men’s Room
Kelly Allen Curious Minds
Matt Wilde Blaze Online
Rosannah Jones University of Manchester – student
Sarah Bond University of Manchester – student
Lydia Burke Venture Arts
Shelley           Wagon Men’s Room
Karina            Nyananyo 42nd Street
James Walklate 42nd Street
Julie McCarthy 42nd Street
Janet Batsleer Manchester Metropolitan University
Sam Broadbent Company Chameleon
Gabrielle Ivinson Manchester Metropolitan University
Haydn Gardner Messy Miscreant
Harriet           Rowley Manchester Metropolitan University
Liz Pugh Walk the Plank

A seat at the table

We invited Ella Otomewo to listen to our conversations through the day and respond in spoken word. The work was amazing! Listen up.

Are there enough seats at the table for me?
Or am I going to have to awkwardly squeeze myself onto the corner again? Make myself smaller again,
and more palatable?

Not having an automatic seat at the table does not mean I expect you
to feed me from a silver spoon.

You can disrupt the table!

Disrupt the heavy expectations sitting dusty next to the silverware. Where mouths have been
force fed what to say.
Don’t ask me to be real

and then get angry
when I’m not your favourite version of myself.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here. Like teaching to an
open ear,
or a pen in hand.

Let’s have a show of hands
for anyone who’s ever woken up
knowing that their best idea yet
is dissolving away with last night’s dreams.

Luckily for us
there is ample time to redo our mistakes,
and meet each other at the place where we have fallen down. Meet me where I think I’ve failed
and I’ll meet you where you start.
Meet me at the heart of it.
Meet me in trust
and let me speak as if you weren’t there,

but as if I had invited you.
I do invite you.
I hope you keep inviting each other

Ella Eneme Otomewo is a Manchester based performance poet. She has a first class degree in English and Drama, and has had commissions from Manchester International Festival, Contact Theatre, and BBC1Xtra to name but a few. She is also a member of M(.)IST Collective, a group of queer female artists from a variety of art forms in Manchester. Ella facilitates creative writing workshops, and has performed at numerous spoken word events both as a headliner and with renowned poetry collective, Young Identity. Her work is feminist, personal, and candid.

Follow Ella on Facebook and Twitter.

Class, the Elephant in the Room – Gabrielle Ivinson’s Reflection

The first Creative Margins event took place on June 26th 2018 in Theatre in the Mill hosted by Common Wealth.

The morning started with a provocative performance by Common Wealth called Class, the Elephant in the Room. And indeed as we strolled into the theatre space there was an Elephant, standing upright and singing – of all the songs – Oasis’s ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger.’ As we sat down we were intoned, cajoled and eventually persuaded by the sheer enthusiasm of the singing Elephant to join in and sing along. The temperature was reaching the late 20 degrees c outside and we were impressed by the wilful determination of the ‘Elephant’ to get us – the crowd – going. When he eventually took off his heavy, padded costume, we could see the perspiration had soaked the actor’s clothes and hair.

The Elephant disguise worked as a metaphor for the extraordinary efforts working class actors have to exert to get roles in theatre in contemporary times. The skit that followed drew on the reflections of the two working class actors (one woman and one man) illustrating what they had to say and how they were judged in interviews when applying for acting roles. Some of the many points they made were:

That working class actor’s accents, presentation of self and even sometimes their looks are features that middle class casting teams assume are legitimate to comment on – usually negatively – or to type caste. We were asked to signal what kinds of events had made us aware of being or knowing working class people. The micro signals given by dress, looks, accent, fashion style and powerful parental of class groups’ expectations emerged as experiences that mark working class and middle class subjectivities.

The actors emphasised that acting has become highly professionalised and hierarchically anchored according to which institutions actors have attended, and how many and what kinds of qualifications they have amassed. As the day went on, we discussed just how this works to privilege middle class actors who use institutions to strengthen their networks in exclusionary ways, and how many arts institutions are dominated and run by middle class people who have become gatekeepers for others. Most importantly, the actors and we discussed how the narrow stereotypes of working identity are imagined and how these mediate interviews and casting sessions.

At the core of this narrow imaginary of a working class person is a‘white, male, low-paid working on a housing estate.’This stereotype is very powerful almost hegemonic and fails to deal with the complexities of working class identities, criss-crossed by gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

Throughout the day participants revealed a vast array of ways of being working class. The actors asked us, the participants, if we identified as working class (hands up), middle class (hands up). This exercise revealed just how many people did not identify according to this class binary. We took from this that class distinctions have become blurred in contemporary UK, at least here in Bradford, in this north of England event.   Discussions revealed the complexities of working class upbringing which create a wide variation of experiences while growing up. Complicated class identities were narrated, such as:

  • growing up on a working class estate with non traditional working class parents, such as immigrant parents who came to the UK with rich arts cultures and how this was passed on to their children.
  • growing up in a working class estate to working class parents and discovering other practices, reading materials, media, habits and rituals through a middle girl or boy friend.
  • growing up on working class estate that held onto the traditions of working class arts cultures.

Rhiannon White (Common Wealth) reminded us of the steel workers who, as matter of tradition, meet after work to create theatre pieces. We recalled the traditions of working class music making, radical working class theatre, and visual art and artists that came out of specific working class communities.

We discussed how the explosion of Grime music has ignited a genre that mixes music genres with video visuals and how this has receives little state financial support as an art form.

We spoke of knowledge- whose knowledge counts? We spoke of what is legitimated as knowledge by public institutions. We speculated that while middle class knowledge is written and is highly valued in arts institutions – where the script, text or score is paramount – media that is not coded in written form is often given lower status. Many working class arts practices are communicated using a wide range of media beyond written text, and is often passed down through practice – as such as oral traditions of remembering dance moves, theatre scripts, stories and visual media.

Indeed our actors illustrated that in order to get an audition, working class actors often have to reveal a specific kind of class knowledge. They have to tell stories of heroic working class survival and demonstrate experiences that are ‘edgy’ or extraordinary before being taken seriously. They screamed ‘Why can’t I be hired because I’m good? Because I make good art?’ ‘Why’, they asked, ‘do working class actors have to reveal a story about themselves in order to get a place at the table, rather than just demonstrated their skill?’

This led to a wider recognition that working class people are often mined for their ‘story’ in interviews, in research in media. These stories are then often pathologies in media or exaggerated to create theatre art. Sometime, they admitted, we play up these stories to get a part thus perpetuating the very system that is marginalising us’. Middle class people do not have to reveal themselves through stories or some extraordinary past – before being accepted at the table.   In effect, middle class people are given access to art institutions or spoken to in interviews as already one of the acceptable gang, while working class people have to earn a place according to the ignorance and narrow stereotypes held by middle class groups. This imbalance perpetuates an inequality in arts participation which, as we mentioned earlier, has become even stronger as the arts have become increasingly professionalised.

We then refracted these discussing through two provocations one by Javaad Alipoor and Nicola Sim.

Javaad pointed out that many working class groups simply choose not to spend their money on theatre trips and visual art exhibitions. If the art culture in those places reflects the taste and values of middle class groups, then it is not surprising that working class people do not choose to pay to see it. There are other things they choose to spend those large sums of money on. Why do we assume that arts and theatre events are good for working class groups? Indeed, why set up a policy to widen participation, to encourage participation in what many people consider elitist culture? Working class people (of gender, colour, age etc) do not want to become middle class, middle aged people. There is a degree of patronising that lies behind widening participation policies. Other arts are happening in other places and maybe art in the forms that middle class people recognise is irrelevant to working class groups? This provocation sparked and on-going debate about that asked, ‘What is art? What is good art? And whose art is recognised as good art?’

We also discussed other forms of art that relate to craft, how craft has working class roots and that some working class families have long histories of craft practices.

Nicky gave an overview of the Tate and Paul Hamlyn Foundation supported initiative called Circuit that aimed to provide opportunities for marginalised groups of young people to participate in the arts and to find routes into art careers. She critiqued why it was, in some ways, a flawed enterprise partly because of what it assumed on behalf of marginalised groups. She raised the issues of cultural capital and exposed the underlying, maybe unconscious, assumptions that middle classes feel they have something to give or teach the working classes. From this, we questioned why working class art is not considered as having something to teach middle class groups. We asked why art initiatives don’t start with the young people themselves and seek their views before imposing a programme of participation on them? We asked, can we start to recognise that art happens in many places and some of these are hidden to middle classed because they do not venture into the places where working class young people do their creative work? If theatre educationalists want to do outreach work, maybe they have to leave the shelter of the institution where they work and wonder further. Nicky pointed out that while most Art Institution’s educational officers are middle class, many youth workers identified as working class. In the Circuit events, this sometimes set up tensions.

A major problem for Art Institutions outreach work is that they often rely on youth workers to manage the access to marginalised groups. Youth workers recognise that marginalised young people require considerable support to participate in the initiatives that have been set up for them. They need to be given reasons to take part, they need to be supported to travel to venues, helped to work on arriving on time and in place, given the complexity and lack of resources that beset their daily living. Some spoke of successful synergies where youth workers and arts organisations worked together sensitively to support young people in more co-produced events.

A major debate took place about the different between cultural capital and social capital. While many Institutions assume they have cultural capital to bestow on working class groups, working class groups often have huge amounts of social capital through the ways they have supported each other in the past, in times of industrialisation and though labour movement and unions. We thought about how these forms of solidarity both exist and are challenged in contemporary life and how urban and rural locations and the history of places, colours this is in many hues depending on where we are focusing. A robust Marxist position came in conflict with new forms of mobilisation that might privilege the virtual presence of people on social media, rather than the physical presence in place, theatre and in what remains of public meeting places. We speculated about what class mobilisation might mean today? We even asked what would be lost if we got rid of the term class?

Among the groups in the Theatre in the Mill, we had a wide range of participants from long standing Marxists activist who and dedicated much of their lives to making theatre more open to non-BME groups to people who had been brought up to aspire to middle class aspirations which they went on to reject. We were reminded of traditional forms of mobilisation when people stuck together to fight for a cause in solidarity and some of the new policy initiative that might be trying to orchestrate or design greater equality such as the ‘pay what you can’ theatre and arts event tickets. There were about 30 participants in this energetic debate which helped to recognise how complex class is – how varied are working class experiences and how permeable the boundaries between working and middle class identities have become.

In summary we, recognised:

  • how participation in arts and getting roles in theatre an other activities have become more not less class discriminatory due to the professionalisation of the arts in general, making trajectories into art jobs very difficult for working class people.
  • how class is recognised by those who read off markers of taste, fashion and accents from those who do not look and sound like us and how the in-group in the `arts is the middle class.
  • how notions of cultural capital abound and how this is fed by stereotypes of working class who are imagined in need of betterment by the middle class. This attitude is perpetuated by many arts institutions and is evident in many of their approaches to ‘out reach work’ and their feelings of needing to widen participation – instead of recognising where good art already happens.

We asked should the middle classes simple step aside and let others run Arts Institutions – while recognised that institutional practices are imbricated with power. While recognising that this maybe rather an extreme suggestion, we imagined what it would be like to have Arts Institutions that reflected the make-up of the population in which 60 percentage are working class. We imagined at least broadening what was accepted as art while recognising that good art or quality is something that everyone holds dear, even if we will never agree on what exactly ‘good’ means.

Gabrielle Ivinson

Attendance list

Maria Thelwell Leeds Play House
Jaasna Aslan  
Nicky Sim Freelance
Julie Langden BCB Radio
Mary Dowson BCB Radio
Molly Reinford Buds Theatre
Katie Malon Buds Theatre
Anamaria Wiels Cultural Transitions
Nameen Akhtar  
Kannaw Hussain  
Paul Wilshaw  
Lisa Mallaghan Mind The Gap
Charlotte Nicol  
Shahada Khan  
Hannah Bentley Arts Council
Guy Christensen 20 Stories High
Rosannah Jones  
Tanya Vital  
Hassan            Mahamdalli  
Arooj Amjad Middlesborough Council
David Tuffnel Middlesborough Council
Hafsah Nibe  
James Duggan MMU
Janet Batsleer MMU
Gabrielle Ivinson MMU
Harriet Rowley MMU
Evie Manning Common Wealth Theatre
Chris Charles Chair of Federation of Detached Youth Workers
Rhiannon White Common Wealth Theatre