There were several overarching themes that evolved as the Social Making symposium rolled out over two days. Those relating to unsettling, succession and time caught my attention. Arnstein’s Ladder was also discussed, there’s an article in response to that on the a-n website, here.
The range of speakers was comprehensive, offering glimpses of the many ways that socially engaged practices are now being delivered internationally. The very nature of successful socially engaged practice is that it becomes deeply, and permanently, embedded in people and places. Take a Part has been doing that in Plymouth since 2009.
Dr. Sarah Bennet (Interim Head of School at Plymouth University) would no doubt refer to Take a Part as an ‘upstart organisation’ as opposed to a startup – they began as a small group with a big idea. The term upstart set the tone, flagging up the need for socially engaged practice to challenge existing new-business models, because not everything is about economy. As the symposium developed and more speakers presented, there appeared to be a growing tension between the notion of unsettling and that of providing sanctuary. How might one create a safe place for people who may have, themselves, arrived in a very unsettled condition?
Dr. Kelichi Nnoaham, Director of Public Health, shared his story of how he grew up listening to hip-hop and rap music, and on entering Cambridge University he had to learn about classical music. That was evidently very unsettling for him and very likely for the fellow students that heard his favourite music for the first time. He referred to this as being ‘a tough war’ which informed his passion for community empowerment and drive for inclusivity.
Michael Bridgewater, engineer and Take a Part Board member, used the term “community interferer”. It’s a good description, unsettling and agitating must have the capacity to constructively re-settle after the event, it’s not just about providing economic validation. And it is messy.
Succession was a big subject at the symposium – how can socially engaged practice withdraw from communities and leave a sustainable legacy that can continue what the artist-as-catalyst began? My article for a-n refers to the Arnstein’s Ladder model that seeks to create total accession through a series of processes, always with citizen control as the goal. I have my reservations whether or not the model works well within socially engaged art practice as it stands, but it could be adapted.
Other projects, such as Homebaked and Effevescent, described how they evolved over time. Time is imperative for succession to come to fruition. There were numerous crunchy little phrases, like “are public artworks empty symbols of civic pride”; “it’s peoples work, humble and messy” and “are indicators passive data, or the legacy of a sense of direction?” to mention a few.
There was a brilliant range of speakers present and it was a real coup to have Turner Prize winners Assemble there to end two days of fascinating discussion. By the end there was a real sense of these being exciting times for culture in Plymouth, both from the speakers and from the conversations in the gaps between. Whilst the audience were seated in the main hall to hear the presentations, there were plenty of networking opportunities, oiled by excellent hospitality by RumpusCosy.
Take A Part should have invited an estate agent to set up a stall – so many people were saying they want to live there. I don’t blame them, it’s a buzzing place to be.
I was able to attend the Symposium thanks to a bursary from VASW. Visual Arts South West is a network creating opportunities for artists, organisations and professionals to develop their practice, share ideas, knowledge & resources, and cultivate relationships.