November 13, 2012

Project Manager Sarah Fox met up with Sue Mayo to talk about her work for Magic Me and how she incorporates digital technology.

It has taken Sue Mayo and me three attempts at meeting up but we finally managed it a few weeks ago, convening at our designated M&S spot at London Victoria. Between teaching at Goldsmiths and running intergenerational projects, Sue had kindly agreed to tell me about the work she undertakes for Magic Me, and in particular how they use digital technology within the process.

We talked about Where the Heart Is, a project that worked with women aged between 15-80 exploring stories of love: “love of friends, partners, of community, of ideas, of causes”. The women met on a weekly basis to share their anecdotes and these were recorded as a series of podcasts and videos. Audience members were then invited to explore the local neighbourhood, guided by the podcasts and films that had been created by the group.  They were then invited to meet the participants over tea and cake to tell their own stories.

To create the podcasts and films, Where the Heart Is worked with a professional filmmaker and sound artist who attended and participated in as many of the workshops as possible, including those where film and sound were not the focus, to ensure they saw the bigger picture. I am particularly interested in the issue of representation and how we ensure that individuals or groups we collaborate with are not misrepresented. Always being aware of our own agendas (whether it might be with our own artistic practice in mind, or what our funders are looking for), we are responsible for telling the right story the right way and the process to do this must be reciprocal, open and genuine. By bringing everybody on board at the very beginning of Where the Heart Is helped the practitioners to build relationships with the participants and develop an understanding of who they are, and what they want from the process (and I imagine, vice versa). The participants also watched the films during the early stages of the editing process and were able to decide what would stay in the final pieces. This contribution helped to develop an honest representation of participants and that they felt the person a viewer saw on the screen or heard on the podcast, was a fair depiction of them.

Lesley Pinder (film artist) and Gita Sarkar
© Helen Jermyn, Magic Me

Although the participants were able to use digital film cameras during the process, Sue was clear early on that it would be the material edited by the filmmaker and sound artist that would be used in the final piece because ultimately they have the expertise. This is a question of how far you want participants to get involved in the technology and the use of it to create the final piece. The aim of Where the Heart Is was not necessarily to up skill participants in making films and sound recordings, but to use the art forms as a way of telling the story to the highest quality it could be. Often participants are happy to leave the artistic vision and technical work to the experts because they know that is what they are trained to do, and participants want the work to be of a  high standard as much as the practitioners. And Sue was quick to point out that often with participatory work the encounters need to be worked on; the meeting of intergenerational groups in projects such as these need time and effort to develop a sense of trust and connectedness. It is much better to focus on this in the beginning than on the technology which can be a source of disruption and a (physical) barrier to real and meaningful relationships being forged.

Interestingly, it was a much simpler form of technology – the post-it note – that provided the best way to structure the performance. Writing up the conversations that had been heard (and conversations that the group wanted to hear again) on individual sticky notes, the group could move around the order, find linearity, group stories into themes, and disregard those that wouldn’t work until an agreed structure was reached. Sue believes that lists are too static to do this. Maybe digital technology can help here too? I imagine a future where workshops look like scenes from Minority Report: images and text on multi-touch interfaces in the air being moved around, sorted, and deleted. Or perhaps everyone merely looks at their iPads or mobile phones?

Finally, following our chat I asked Sue to tell us her top tips for participatory work considering her extensive experience of working in this field. She emailed me some very wise words and here they are:

  • Everyone in the room is meant to be there
  • Everyone is an expert at something, and the artist shouldn’t hide their expertise while they are encouraging others
  • Collaboration means sharing the labour and I find it a much more helpful word than  ownership, because real ownership is often limited by structures and funding and time frame. Within those structures it is still possible to collaborate
  • It’s great to keep remembering why it is better to be doing this work together…
  • Be really clear about the kind of participation you are offering. For example, if it won’t be possible for everyone to be involved in editing a film or an audio piece, make sure that is known and explained
  • Be ready to change course.

For a more detailed overview of Where the Heart Is, you can read my last blog here and if you’d like to hear the podcasts or see the lovely map the group created, they are still available on the Magic Me website.

Sue Mayo

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