Chrissie Tiller reflects on two occasions recently when she held stakes and took part
As someone who struggles to avoid jargon and corporate "arts-speak", I am aware that few days go by without the words "stakeholders" or "participants" creeping into my conversations. My excuse is I run an MA in Participatory Arts for part of my time and spend the rest working with cultural organisations on things like, "strategic planning" or "reflective practice". Ouch! Bring on those plain English guidelines.
And so it was with a mixture of trepidation and delight that I gave myself up, over the last few weeks, to both holding stakes and taking part. I know we're all “stakeholders” in the bigger Arts Council picture but I wanted something up close and personal.
The first opportunity presented itself with a leaflet on our notice board asking for people to help with a Hackney Council Olympic commemorative mosaic. The proximity of "mosaic" with "local authority" made me a little nervous (something to do with too many '70s school playgrounds) and I completely blanked out “commemorative” and “Olympic”, but the chosen wall was a particularly grim corner of the park opposite so I was happy that something might distract from the general sense of neglect.
I needn't have worried. Although I didn't manage to get involved with the mosaic making I eagerly awaited the artist updates as "our" project developed. I made sure I was there, along with fifty or so other locals, for the official opening. The mosaic itself was the first surprise: a combination of Roman tessarae (bits of marble) and contemporary Hackney that totally pulled the rug from under my prejudiced feet. The second (apart from the sunshine) was not only the moving way those involved spoke of their experience, including reciting poems, but also the make-up of the audience: City of London tenants, regulars from the Wenlock Arms and newly arrived live-workers sharing a moment of pride in a piece of art that "belonged to them".
My participation in 100% London was totally different. For one thing it was 100%. Starting with a text that I was "needed" at a rehearsal room behind Hackney Empire (they were short of women of a certain age), it took over my life for two weeks. There were props to remember, moves to be fixed and stories to re-create each night. There were 100 of us, aged from 4 months to 87 years. I was number 99. Between us we represented the demographic make-up of London's 7.8 million: 59% white British, 4% mixed race, etc. In response to questions – who thought men and women were treated equally; lived in a single person household; was afraid of the future – we moved across the stage. We grouped and re-grouped in a spotlight according to whether we'd had cancer, been homeless, seen someone die. The audience oddly applauding us as if we were some sort of proof that life was survivable. Sadly, unlike Braunschweig where Angela Merkel was on the front row (the creators Rimini Protokoll are German), neither David nor Boris graced us with their presence.
At the end of the last performance we all exchanged telephone numbers, swore to join the Facebook group, take up our "performers" passes to the LIFT green room. So far I haven't done any of these. At the same time I do find myself mentioning the show in some way almost every day. In a seminar on freedom of expression I find myself explaining how many Londoners think it's OK to wear the hijab in public but feel differently about the wearing of it in schools. I've told fellow evaluators how many people are happy to take part in statistical research even though they think the results will be massaged. I can tell them that the group of people who stood centre stage for having had cancer, suffered from depression or considered taking their own lives grew as the performances went on.
Some of my theatre friends hated it; found it patronising. They couldn't understand who had chosen those simplistic questions. (It was the participants.) Others found it moving, enlightening, funny, or loved the diverse picture of London it presented. Some people wondered if it was more important for the participants than the audience. I couldn't tell. I was part of it. I am able to wonder, afterwards, who "owned" the piece. I recognise the participants were mainly self-selecting – those prepared to go on stage. Not to take themselves too seriously. I can ask, as we did of the audience each night, if we were at all "representative"?
So far, I haven't been asked to complete an evaluation form for either project. Although I know neither provided any solution to current social or economic problems, I do have a clear sense of what they did give people: a sense of engagement, belonging to something wider, and, perhaps even more importantly, an awareness of their own creativity, their humour, their capacity for storytelling. Of the place art could play in their lives. Maybe that has to be enough? If we can justify ‘high’ art by saying it's intrinsically worthwhile why does ‘participative’ work have to be argued for in terms of social or economic change; measured in outcomes of social cohesion? Might it not finally have to be enough that we too took part: as makers, as observers, as audience?
I can see the part of the park with the mosaic from my window. The local lads have taken to congregating there in the evenings. They play a game of tossing coins. Sometimes people come to look at the mosaic on purpose; sometimes it just catches their eye as they walk though the nearby tunnel. It hasn't been graffitied yet or been ‘decorated’ with McDonalds take-away. But, as Zhou Enlai reputedly answered when asked about the significance of the French Revolution, it's probably “too early to comment”.