Change:How?

Hello. It’s been a while. But I’ve been buying yet more crayons to prep for Change How RGB logo 2015my talk at the Change:How? conference/political festival mashup! Dear Neighbour has been in hibernation for a while for a number of reasons- I had to stay with my parents in the West Country for a bit (hello housing crisis/ not many paid jobs in arts for young’ns) and I’m now back in London and but I don’t know where to start. Here’s a post written in excitement and fear….

On the 8th of February, 100 days before we vote in the general election, 100 speakers will share their ideas at Change: How? “A POLITICAL FESTIVAL” they promise, “AN IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE.” Well, I’m glad it sounds so open and creative because sitting down and trying to write my speech, I feel like a fraud; I’m not an avid campaigner, an activist or voice of my generation. No, I’m an unemployed arts graduate who made a project last year with my neighbours and cheap wax crayons from Rymans. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a political event.

Some serious preparation for Sunday...

Some serious preparation for Sunday…

Dear Neighbour was my attempt making some connection between the shiny steel and glass cathedral of Central Saint Martins art college where I studied, and the non-descript street in Tower Hamlets where I lived for three years simply because it was the cheapest room I could find. I wanted to see if my neighbours, strangers who represented a myriad of ages, interests, backgrounds and ethnicities, would participate in an arts project. I wondered what creativity could do for us collectively, in a place that felt increasingly fragmented: Can art forge a community? Do we want to feel part of a community? Can art ever be for everyone?

My project comprised of me posting a letter to every household on my street, asking residents to draw their portraits and mount them in their front windows for all to see from the pavement to create our very own portrait gallery, with a view to collaborating on an art project together. This low-fi plan was an attempt to challenge what I had experienced as a visitor and volunteer at many arts institutions and organisations. It was startlingly obvious to me that the theatres, museums and galleries that I had begun to visit did not seem in the least bit accessible to the people I lived amongst in the heart of Tower Hamlets, a borough well known for its ethnic diversity and extreme disparity in wealth.

This is old ground. Surely it frustrates us all that the media are still talking about the arts as the reserve of privately educated white men in 2015? Education is only one hurdle that excludes people from enjoying and participating in the arts- the ideological, cultural and practical barriers that get in the way of everyone enjoying the arts is a big ugly bog that the government seems incapable of sorting out. I realised that I could try and circumnavigate that bog of debate, inadequate funding and despair and do something independent that didn’t rely on public funding, corporate sponsorship or an imposing building or any building at all.

Rather than wade through policy, I looked at contemporary artists with participatory practices like Jeremy Deller, work that is activated by the thought and conversation of people who might not think themselves politically engaged at all. I researched publically and corporately funded projects at some well-known arts institutions and failed to find what impact they had, and I found out about some brilliant grass-roots art projects by walking around the city, looking and listening. But Dear Neighbour didn’t require anyone to go somewhere particular, the creativity took place on kitchen tables and the exhibition could be viewed on the way to work, school or to the corner shop. I wanted to find out whether people of all ages, backgrounds and interests would participate if the opportunity landed on their doormat, and it turned out that most of them did!

Accessibility to the arts is integral to society because it allows people who might feel overwhelmed by and detached from politics (like me), to be drawn into thinking and talking about issues that we face. At Change:How? they say the emphasis will be upon conversation, so everyone who comes along can properly participate, thrash out thoughts and work out what to do together. For many of us, our big ideas lie dormant, so lets support each other and make use of this platform. Ironically, having finally emerged from the education system, I personally feel less confident than ever as I struggle to find a job in the arts industry and pay my rent. Paralysed into inaction by the bigger system, I hope that listening and talking on Sunday will get me doing something exciting by Monday. You’re welcome to join me.

And I’m particularly looking forward listening to Bob and Roberta Smith, an artist running against Michael Gove, and Stella Duffy, co-creator of the super-duper Fun Palaces.

TRSE Fun Palace, 2014

TRSE Fun Palace, 2014

Bob and Roberta Smith, 2015

Bob and Roberta Smith, 2015

Hot off the Press – Crayon Portraits in Time Out London!

Dear all,

Almost exactly a month ago I printed out a letter to all of my neighbours and skipped down my street posting them through every letterbox. Actually, it was more than a shuffle than a skip because it was quite nerve-wracking, a few curtains twitched as I defied ‘No Junk Mail’ signs, stuffing my letter through the brushy bits as quickly as I could. But my letter wasn’t junk, it was pretty friendly, a bit playful and there was a plan…

 

the letter

In the following week about 35 houses had followed my letter’s instructions and they had stuck up a group portrait in their front window using the crayons and Blu-Tack in the envelope so anyone and everyone could see it from the pavement. And so the street became our own little pop-up portrait gallery and I took some pictures to make a short video to put up on this blog as a record of all of these amazing crayon faces, smiles, cats, messages and more cats!

 THANK YOU EVERYONE WHO GOT INVOLVED!

Most houses have left up their drawings after the week of the project, so perhaps this little exhibition is going to become our street’s permanent collection! Even more portraits have gone up recently; one finally solves the mystery of the black fluffy cat that I mentioned in my letter, who despite being curled up on my chair as I write, actually does have his own home up the street! I also spied a crayon masterpiece this week too, Man and his Cat I think I’ll call it.

cat explanation

So he’s called Geoffrey…

man and cat

Man and his Cat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The excitingness continues: today there’s a piece about Dear Neighbour in Time Out London! It’s part of this week’s London loves you issue (page 16) in a feature about 7 lovely London projects and the link above will take you to a bit about Dear Neighbour their blog.

TO article

Hopefully lots of people will hear about the project now and I’d love to hear if you’d like Dear Neighbour to come to where you live, please do send me a message. This summer I’ll be making plans to make the project bigger and better and now that my student loan’s all gone I’m planning to set up a crowd funding campaign to buy more crayons!

 

Love from Jemima

P.S. Keep in touch, I really would like to know what you think

 

 

Through The Letterbox

It’s bank holiday Monday of the summer half term and yesterday Dear Neighbour finally dropped!

 

Housemates were roped in to filling envelopes and making blobs of blu-tack, and then I skipped down the street with my postbag. Except it was actually quite nerve-wracking; I walked furtively, glancing over my shoulder between houses. Even though I had tried to work around being intrusive, it felt a bit uncomfortable stopping at every door, especially those that had brushy bit in their letterbox or ‘No Junk Mail’ emblazoned across it. Curtains twitched but I was heartened when I heard a little voice shout triumphantly “It’s got blu-tack!!”

 

Image

Image

Image

Just as I was reaching the end of the row of odd numbers, a lady ran up the road towards me. Uh oh. I remembered my risk assessment. Say it’s an art project. Say it’s for Uni. I didn’t need to worry, she just wanted to know more about it – her children were excited and she wanted to tell me who else on the street would definitely join in, it appears some people do actually know their neighbours! We had a lovely chat and I told her about some of my ideas, she was really enthused and I realised that yes, it had already worked. With Conversation 1 under my belt I’m sure that a few things were being said behind closed doors and in the evening I had an excited text message from one of my flatmates – they’d spotted the first portrait up in a window. There are PARTICIPANTS!!

 

I asked my neighbours to put up their drawings by Wednesday, so watch this space!

Why I’m Doing This and Where it Could Go…

You might be wondering why I’m doing this, so I’ll try and explain a bit about the background behind project and how it could move forward.

The project will explore ideas of ‘community’, a weighted word that can even suggest exclusion. Can an art project foster a new community? Would that be a positive thing? Do people like to participate? By working within the confines of a street I am not approaching a pre-defined demographic in terms of age, ethnicity, ability or anything else; these people simply live in a long line.

The Whitechapel Gallery, which is just down the road from me, actually started to explore this idea in their three-year project called, wait for it… The Street! But this has not led to a change across the board.

whitechapel

The Whitechapel Gallery and the shop they set up in for The Street project (Whitechapel Gallery website)

Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive still targets ‘minorities’ as project participants and unfortunately our borough council is completely unsupportive of artists using empty spaces. The Street was only possible because of an enormous budget partly provided by the investment bank J P Morgan- they had half a million pounds to play with. Although the Whitechapel emphasised the departure from ‘bricks and mortar’ in this project, they simply left the gallery during its expansion works and rented an  empty shop. So who is really gaining? Why is so much money spent when there’s nothing much to show at the end? If this art is just about people, can’t it be done without corporate sponsorship and the clout of an institution’s letterhead?

My own project tries to address these questions and sidestep the system; I’ll be starting out on my own and I’ve kept the costs as low as possible so I can cover them myself. Two weeks after the first letter I’ll post invitations to a Sunday coffee morning and this should get the ball rolling. I want to give my neighbours an opportunity to chat and say what they thought about my letter, conversation is the most important and interesting thing about participatory art and listening will shape the future of the project. Although I have ideas of where it could go, nothing should be predetermined- this will take perseverance and lots of cups of tea!

One of great things about not being aligned with an organisation is that there is no fixed timeframe, obviously these sorts of projects are durational and yet arbitrary timescales are usually fixed from the outset. Weekly tea meetings or workshops will not only shape the future of the project but will also be a regular way to meet new people and shun the ironic isolation that comes with living in such a big city. I won’t have to fork out for this stage as we can just meet in the local subsidised arts cafe, in the primary school hall at the end of the road or even in Stepney Green Park.

My street - then and now (top photo from the Tower Hamlets Archive)

My street – then and now (top photo from the Tower Hamlets Archive)

As a resident myself, I will put forward the idea of planning an event for everyone on the street, but probably not a ‘street party’ because there are so many cars now. There’s a long history of local fairs and in the 1960’s celebrities opened ‘fayres’ at the primary school! A group of residents could organise an annual event to bring everyone together, perhaps with food stalls and a stage. There would also be an opportunity for things like an oral history recording booth to document experiences of living on the street and since our houses were built on land where rope was made, it would be rude not to have a tug of war! 

There would be bigger costs at this point, we could use a crowd funding campaign, all chip in or apply for a grant- there are some available from the council. It’s important that this is organised by a collective of resident participants, because one of the side affects of J P Morgan’s generosity is that lots of socially engaged art projects aren’t actually valued by participants. If all the funding is left to me then the project will not really have been co-created and might not be worth anything to anyone else. 

You can see that participatory art is complicated and debatable so I think it’s worth trying something out!

 

Hello

My project is an experiment. It will play with participatory art, which was once confined to the education departments of museums and galleries but has recently been taken over by contemporary artists. This really took off in the nineties, but Futurist and Paris Dada performances and mass spectacles back in the early 20th century set the tone. I want to try and liberate this form from the gallery space and the education room and put it back onto the street: the very London street that I live on…

Where I live

Where I live

 I’m not an artist or a social worker, but it would be interesting to see whether a participatory art project could build new relationships between neighbours, something that lives on and doesn’t just sit in a cobwebby archive or unopened coffee-table book. This kind of ‘art’ is difficult to record and has no particular aesthetic or material outcome, so a blog full of thoughts and some photos seems a good way to share it with anyone who might be interested!