Discussion Forum

Transient Living - 
Commissioned Artist's Meeting Mid-Journey 10/10/10
with Sylvia Rimat, Kate Rowles, Liz Clarke, Simone Kenyon, Cara Verkerk and Sarah Warden

Ask an artist a handful of simple questions, for a gathering of some of their passing thoughts - and what do you get? An exciting peek into their minds. Put them around a table together, a little tea and a little cake - a confluence of ideas! This afternoon was an exciting opportunity for the commissioned artists involved in You and Your Work 8, to discuss the progress of their projects so far.  Sylvia, the director of the project, guided the discussion, which evolved into a conversation about socially engaged art and practice in general.

A brief discussion by the artists about their projects:

‘Through My Own Eyes’
Kate Rowles’s project is working with the concept of autobiographical filmmaking. She is carrying it out with a group spanning generations - three teenagers and three elderly people - all meeting together at a care home. She shared with us an interesting initial conversation they had, which seemed to generate lots of fuel to kick start their work. The conversation covered ideas of how to write autobiographies, and the wider role of film in society. Kate also described the excitement shared as they explored using the camera. This lead to discussing different purposes of using a camera - whether to make a video diary for a sociological purpose, or for a political purpose such as capturing something which would otherwise remain invisible.

Kate has been filming these sessions herself, and has noticed how the camera’s presence has caused the group to gradually relax around it. Kate plans to use some of this footage in the final work they present to contextualize each participant’s own autobiographical film. She envisions this final presentation to be in the form of a screening and discussion where the participants can invite friends and family. The idea behind this is to have each participant involved in the festival - taking on the role of a filmmaker in public.

Kate’s main focus is on each individual in the group, and is setting herself the role of allowing the each person explore their own routes of curiosity. As a result of not wanting to influence their creative tendencies, she hasn’t yet discussed her own artistic background with them in depth - work ranging from home videos to conceptual performance. Instead she is happy to share ideas, which she found through this work - particularly viewing film as history, as a kind of social evidence.

Liz Clarke is working with the housing association ‘Independent People’ to create a project with young homeless people who have been given temporary housing. Initially she had a meeting with all the organisation's staff to introduce them to her project and was both surprised and happy by the excitement it was met with. With the help of their support workers she has been able to coordinate meetings with a total of six teenagers.

This project is drawing from Liz’s artistic background in live art and body-based performance. The first sessions so far have been introducing the participants to these forms of performance. She described how her intention is not to steer the artistic notions of the group, but rather to lead them according to their own initiative. By being flexible to their ideas and also challenging them with different ones she hopes to help them form their own thoughts more strongly. Liz was incredibly enthused by the excitement her groups met these ideas, which were new for most of them. Together they explored what these forms of performance can express and why they are important. Liz was especially thrilled by one conversation delving into ideas of what constitutes an audience: Are they an ‘audience’ if they are accidental witnesses? Does something count as a ‘performance’ without an audience at all?

Liz’s participants all agreed that they wanted to express voices from their community of homeless young people and discussed ideas to explore in depth. One image they explored was of closed doors - how while they might all close on the same standardized rooms, each hides its own individual life behind it. Together they discussed the title of their piece, and after deciding on their interest of depicting different layers of lives they chose ‘Sedimentary’.

At a following session, Liz ran a workshop exploring how to construct various sensory experiences. They experimented using smells, sprays of water, and leading an audience member through obstacles using a rope. Together they devised around various images - hitting on a striking one using a duvet. While exploring how to give audience sensation of being in an enclosed space - the group wrapped their audience member in a duvet and created noises around them. This idea sprung out of talking about the anxiety some of the participants expressed sometimes lying in bed listening to sounds outside of their room.

A difficulty Liz has encountered so far has been working with participants who won’t regularly turn up. She is aware that she might have to adapt to working with a group who are not involved continuously in the process. She reflected that by nature she finds young people transient and hard to pin down, and wondered if there was a way of developing her work to accommodate this. In contrast to their transience, she sees her role in the project as being the stable point or reference. At the moment she imagines the final work becoming an installation which each audience member is lead through by a performer. She mentioned that her participants seemed keen to be represented live, and that the concept of one-to-one performance was something new and interesting to many of them.

Initially she had expected the topic of transient living to be a sensitive issue with her group of participants, but found that the group members were very open to discuss their experiences in temporary housing. People described their feelings when first given their set of keys, first entering their flat, their family backgrounds, or worries of eventually being asked to leave. The group themselves have decided to consciously make a positive piece of art, which together they’ll work towards in a following four sessions.

‘The Museum of Floating Objects’
Simone Kenyon and Neil Callaghan started work last week bending and weaving willow branches on the quayside. They were building a boat and attracted a lot of attention of passers by who stopped to watch. Observing people in the swing of building something seemed to hypnotize people, some staying to watch for long periods. Describing how much attention they attracted Simone reflected how she likes the idea of a demonstration, and how them all being in the flow of making something was performative in itself. She went on to explain how they came to be building this boat at all - an Irish currach, a vessel just big enough to buoy up two passengers. Simone and Neil are working on their project titled ‘The Museum of Floating Objects’, as part of which they want to map the inhabitants of the harbor community. This pair want to develop work grounded in practical action, and thus wanted to be able to meet their participants on the water themselves. They are building their boat with the instructions of a trusty boat builder Rory from Cornwall. They found themselves in touch with him through a series of fortuitous connections. Becoming in touch with the boating community in both Bristol and London has given them access to people and opportunities and Simone commented that she’s never worked on a project like this before where things have which developed so organically.

Recent converters to life-afloat, Simone and Neil are new owners of their own canal boat in London. For them personally, the process of making this project is also an education for their own lives on boats. Simone commented that the London community naturally is different to that in Bristol yet what both hold in common are people with an attraction not to be sedimentary - in contrast to Liz’s teenagers. The pair are interested in approaching members of this community on an even keel, and have consciously tried not to approach them as voyeuristic outsiders. For this reason, building the boat in Bristol harbor has been a step bringing them into this community.

Flyers were left on the 400-some floating homes in the harbor inviting their owners to meet and talk with Simone and Neil. Part of this simple transaction will involve lending an object with a story behind it. A map of this community will gradually be woven by collecting filmed conversations with various boat-dwellers describing their personal histories attached to the objects.

In their process they have gradually found that contrary to wanting to be mapped, many of the harbor’s inhabitants actually want to remain invisible. Simone described how she learnt about the short leases the council permitted for a boat to be moored in one place, and the ways people found to get around this as well as the leniency of the harbor master.  She and Neil were discovering a new relationship the boat-dwellers had to the quayside compared to your average ‘land-lubber’ - as well as being faced with a resistance to being documented in their project. They have found that this hesitation to be interviewed has made their practical approach even more important than they originally expected. So much of the project has simply to do with easily facilitating conversations and interactions. On a similar note, they have consciously not labeled themselves as ‘Artists’ feeling that this label would distance them from the community. (Instead they are ‘Enthusiasts’.) Simone expressed how she instead of feeling like an outsider she felt accepted, because of an obvious shared interest in the community. Throughout their project the pair have felt a huge amount of support from the members of the boatyard and the harbormaster. Their next step is going to be to move their currach to the boatyard and paint it there. They still have to name their creation, and are thinking of having a ‘launch’/christening. They will also continue to talk with various people from the harbor community, meeting them in the local pub. Simone expressed how encouraged she was by how their project has been like a discovery of generosity - reflected not only in the boatyard’s help but also the objects leant to them to build their Museum. This Museum will be the project’s final product exhibiting the different stories and objects lent. The pair hope it will also be an event that will hopefully bring members of the community together in visiting it.

Discussing relational arts practice and socially engaged art:

Sylvia, the project director, proposed the notion that when making socially engaged art it was import for the art not to simply become a sociological study, but for it to maintain its artistic voice. She described how artists are often sent to work with communities that lack voice or political attention (often as a government initiative). This led her to believe that the work of artists in this position was being used as a kind contingent for reform and integration. As a result of this artistic merit can be denied to such work, since it is often not displayed out of the community in which it is created, and thus apparently not valued as art to share with others. The three artists present agreed with Sylvia’s sentiment that it was important to maintain both an artistic discourse as well as a social one. For this reason - of valuing socially engaged art as having artistic merit in itself - Sylvia decided to stage the festival at the Arnolfini for the first time this year.

Holding the festival at the Arnolfini has had a strong effect on the projects. Liz felt that for her young people the prospect of having their work performed at the Arnolfini was a both exciting and daunting. She felt the location of the festival was incredibly powerful, since by having it in such a well-respected arts venue, their work was being given a kind of validation. In respect to Simone and Neil’s project, Simone felt it was exciting to work with a community connected with the site of exhibition. In this way the location contextualized the project to participants and potential audience members. In fact, the Arnolfini already featured in their final work - it was the setting of one of the stories they had been told.

 On another note, Simone expressed her discomfort with the idea of an anthropologist-artist. This has lead her, before beginning work on the project, to think about how to represent a social group without portraying them as an ‘other’. Her response to this has been to approach the project with great enthusiasm, and to get members of the community to tell stories, and to become guides for herself and Neil into understanding their community - thus empowering them.

Similarly, Kate is choosing to empower her participants by allowing them to create their own autobiographical work in any form they wish. Kate is interested in focusing on merging points between the fields of art and documentary. She had been disappointed by a discussion on Art and Social Practice at the Tate, where no documentary filmmakers had been represented and felt this was a missing point of focus. For herself, documentary has guided her in her artistic practice - especially by giving her work an impetus of opening the public eye to certain situations.

Sylvia brought up the topic of how socially engaged work is influenced by funding channels, due to their tendency to prioritize work with certain communities over others. With the sense of an ironic twist, the restriction of having to tick certain boxes by working with specific communities is counter the ideal of diversity in the arts. This aspect of social art is interesting in respect to Simone and Neil’s project, since work with the boating community typically would not be a priority for community art funding. Meanwhile, it is precisely such communities, which might not usually be touched upon that are interesting to work with, and as Simone observed there is a spread of diversity within this community itself.


There was an excited discussion between the artists sharing how rich they found the process of making their work. Liz was clearly inspired by working with her group of young people and seeing how they were affected by learning about new ideas of performance. This was apparent in the amount of energy with which she talked about their process, and her curiosity of where this might lead them later on.

Simone described how in her head she hadn’t titled their project as ‘social work’ - a sentiment encouraged by Sylvia, who feels that it is good to come at the work from a strong artistic background. In a similar way, Kate described how she didn’t see her work as dealing with a ‘community’ as such, but rather with a collection of individuals - who happen to be of a range of ages, meeting at different points in their lives.

Simone found that the most challenging aspect of her project was finding the best way of engaging with people. For this she’s found that much of their work is rooted in developing good conversational techniques - “the art of conversation”. This desire to be open to other people and engage with them seems to be at the heart of what makes all of these projects ‘social’. Simone hit the nail on the head with a simple observation, which when followed through becomes very rich - that instead of being inward looking, the nature of their project has constantly guided them as artists to look outward.

Written by Cara Verkerk (marketing intern for Y&YW8)