I want to reiterate that what follows is drawn from my own limited insight through playing a small part in a long process. I am aware that any public, participatory commission does not leap, fully formed, into existence, but rather involves many stages including inception, planning, negotiation, fundraising, discussions, framing, etc., before an artist – or indeed the community – is even involved. I cannot therefore speak for the entirety of ‘my’ project, as I do not have insight into every element.
This was perhaps the first major ‘accident’ on the line.
To explore this question, I offer the following image. This is the room the Community Centre gave me as a ‘studio’ for several months.
This went on for about two months, in which I achieved absolutely nothing, because I was constantly distracted/interrupted. I explained to the Community Centre that I needed somewhere stable and fixed, as well as access at to the building on my own terms: ‘working with people’ does not fit into office hours, but happens at all the odd times people are being ‘a community’, including weekends and evenings. The Institution, the Community Centre and I therefore had several meetings and we worked out a deal to give me a more permanent location: the Tinkerbell Room in the image above.
It was a room that I could not lock, as it is actually a thoroughfare between two other rooms. I therefore had no privacy, and people randomly walked through the space every twenty minutes. I could not leave my computer unattended, nor was I allowed to change the room in any way, as it was still used on some evenings for Social Work interviews and as a place for counselling and discussion. There are no windows, nor sockets, no direct working space, other than the small desk I nicked from a storage locker. But at least it was a fixed space.
I decided to try to make it work, but it highlighted the many issues that arise when a ‘host’ – the Community Centre – has never hosted an artist-in-residence before. They do not know the needs of a regular, traditional, object-producing artist, let alone someone who works within participatory settings. How could they be expected to tend to the needs and requirements of which they had never had any experience? And, from that perspective, I can understand why I was sitting next to Tinkerbell: I needed a space, and this was the one they had available. The Community Centre cannot be faulted, as it is neither their remit not expertise to host artists-in-residence. I wonder, however, if The Institution could have done more research into what the Centre could or could not do to support the visiting artist? The situation described underlines why organisations need to be present within communities over long, entrenched periods in order to be able to communicate who needs what, why, where and how. The organisation must have ground knowledge and plan the minutiae of projects effectively, because how is an artist expected to work if there is nowhere for them to work from?
After quite a few pressuring emails and discussions and weeks of relying on Viv’s good nature, I was informed they’d finally found me a place to live: a wholly unfurnished two-bedroom terraced house. On moving in, I was given one plate, one bowl, one cup, one glass, one chair, one desk, one set of cutlery, and a mattress on the floor. I was also informed I had to pay for the £450 damage deposit myself due to the financial restrictions that disbarred The Institution from renting properties. It felt like the accommodation equivalent of the Tinkerbell room in the Community Centre: impractical and ill-considered. It was, however, functional, and I am not fussy, so I agreed to the deal. Since it had taken so long to get to this point, I felt it best to keep quiet about any concerns, lest it take another four months to sort out another arrangement. I would often return from a day of trying to make art with people to this empty house and call my husband, hearing my voice echo off the bare walls, the other empty rooms, the cupboards bare and the mattress pushed up against the wall like a dead body.
It was a small statement, but it struck me forcefully. Reflecting on it later, I think it affected me because I did not know if she was implying that she did not want to be friends with me, or that she misunderstood the role and function of a socially engaged artist and how/why we work with people? Or that she considered it not the job of a hosting organisation to worry about the social life of an artist? I did not expect to be best friends, but I had assumed (perhaps wrongly) that working with an organisation in an embedded, long-term process might mean that we socially interact once in a while. Her response seemed to imply that the onus was on me to fix any problems.
Early one morning, when the project manager was visiting, I saw some youth on the tow path. I had done a workshop with some of them the day before and so waved at them, at which point they began to throw stones at me: small rocks flying at my head and making plop noises into the water. I called out, in a friendly voice, joking to defuse the situation: ‘Oi! There’s no need to get violent!’ They laughed, and one of the boys yelled back: ‘Your mother was violent last night when I fucked her, because my dick was so big.’ He was nine years old. They resumed throwing rocks, bigger ones now, and one just missed my face and I turned to avoid it. When I turned back, one of them pointed, and called me ‘Fag-Boy Cunt! You Fucking Homo! I’m going to tell everyone you touched me!’ They continued to hurl rocks and homophobic abuse at me until they passed under a bridge, out of sight. The project manager, at the other end of the barge, looked back at me and laughed, saying: ‘Well, this is all part of the fun, isn’t it?’ It did not seem fun to me.
In some ways, however, I understand what she meant: this was the reality of rough working-class towns and I could not necessarily apply my middle-class ideals to such a context. Thankfully, I have thick skin and worked in contexts like this before and so can brush off a few rocks and a few words. But what is an organisation’s responsibility to an artist in such contexts? I had just experienced a hate crime, and the institutional representative suggested I laugh it off. If a woman had had rape threats screamed at her from a gang of young men, would an organisation expect her to go back and work with those very same men? The experience raises a question about pastoral care: what are the responsibilities of the organisation that invites an artist to live and work in a difficult context? It is perhaps not an important question to explore in comparison to the ethics of participatory practices, or in relation to the societal issues faced by many citizens within these communities. But I do think it is safe to suggest that the emotional state of an artist might affect the quality of the artwork, and their ability to make work at all. It, too, is a question of infrastructure: the infrastructure of pastoral care.