August 9, 2012

People United believe that arts and creativity are a valuable way to develop cohesive, more resilient, and more understanding communities. Of course, we aren’t the only ones who think this, and recently I was able to see four very different pieces of participatory work bringing about connections between people through the arts. Although all different, for instance in scale and location, underneath it all is a sense of trying to make the world a better place.

Where the Heart Is took me on a journey of the senses, and culminated in tea and cake with two very lovely ladies, Marion and Sumayya. With a beautifully illustrated map printed on a handkerchief, I weaved my way through the streets of Aldgate and Brick Lane, listening to stories of love told by women aged between 15 and 80, stopping to watch still and moving images in unexpected places.

Where the Heart Is

Photo by Helen Jermyn

Magic Me run meaningful intergenerational arts projects and every year collaborate with Mulberry Schools for Girls, The Women’s Library and local older women on a project devoted women. Chatting to one of the older participants Marion, over tea and cake after the walk, I felt that the project had become an integral part of her life. Taking part since the early days (this is their 9th project), Marion is a clear advocate for the work, “I forget how old I am when I speak to the girls”. Discovering similarities and exploring the differences in their cultures and beliefs, the women talk about marriage, love, and lipstick. Where the Heart Is is an excellent example of bringing people together from different walks of life: As Marion said herself, “Where else would I meet them?” For over an hour, Marion, Sumayya and I talked, sharing our stories and talking about our aspirations. What a project like this succeeds so well in doing is to remind us that we can always find something we have in common with others; we are not so different.

After Aldgate, I made my way to Hackney Empire to see 100% London, a piece that highlighted our commonality and our differences. Having followed the recruitment of 100 Londoners through Twitter, I was intrigued to see how the project would present itself on the stage. Over four months, 100% London began with the casting of one member who had to recruit another, who recruited another and so on – all according to specific demographics so that each member represented 1% of London. During the performance, each person came onto the stage, all with an object which was special to them, to tell us something about themselves, and to introduce the next person. Once all 100 people (aged between 4 months and 82 years old) were on stage, questions were asked (for example: do you own an iPad? Who has cancer? What superhero would you be?) and the answers were given, building a moving, living, breathing poll that gave us fascinating, humorous and moving findings.

Hackney Empire

At one point the audience were able to ask their own questions, and although I wished that this had lasted a bit longer the piece kept moving and evolving so that it was pacey and energetic.  What struck me most was seeing 100 people connected, on stage, and together through this extraordinary participatory project. I would really love to know how many continue their newly founded friendships, and whether there is a longer-lasting legacy to the project.

During a visit to see my family in Dorset, I went to the Lighthouse in Poole (the last time I had visited I was 18 and it was the annual prize-giving ceremony for my school!) My niece was performing in one of the four choral pieces, Coastal Voices, commissioned by the arts centre and its partners as part of London 2012, and she would be one of 800 singers I would have the opportunity to listen to that night. Bringing young people together from different schools, On Golden Cap, used energetic stamping of feet, clicking of fingers and clapping of hands to set the piece off.

John Miles conducting

Each piece was composed by a professional musician and performed by local performers of all ages, from primary school children to older adults responding directly to the amazing geological landscape in which they live. One of its strengths lay in making the music contemporary, innovative and evocative: it was something different and challenging. Our ears had to adjust and listen differently, and although I liked that, I’m not sure every member of the audience did for all the pieces. For one particular composition, I felt that although the experience for the participants might have been a very good one, this did not translate to the relationship between the piece and the audience. It’s all about connection: engage with your audience/participant and take them on your journey. Nevertheless, Coastal Voices was experimental, ambitious and uplifting and showed the power in uniting communities through music.

The Boat Project has, for me, been one of the most interesting participatory projects to come out of the Cultural Olympiad. If you haven’t heard of it, I urge you to take a look at their website www.theboatproject.com It has crossed art forms, engaged with thousands of people (not just the people who donated wood), and has been a really exciting project to watch develop. The boat, named Collective Spirit brings all those people’s lives and their stories together.

The Boat Project at Brighton Marina

In life we can feel disconnected to others, and can feel like we don’t belong. As a friend said to me the other day, “parts of our society are broken and we need to try and fix it”.  The Arts doesn’t have all the answers and doesn’t always get it right but seeing these four pieces, it is clear that there are people and organisations out there trying to build bridges.

Sarah Fox

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