Socially Engaged Practice or Just a Procession of People Carrying Shit?
There’s a trend happening in the arts, a trend that no one dare to call a trend because it might expose them for not really caring as much as they think they do. For not being the publicly funded Lady Di of theatre they think they are - it’s called socially engaged practice.
For those of you more honest with your artistic intentions or the uninitiated, socially engaged work is the art of making stuff with heart. Enabling a community or individual to work something through, discuss the contentious, sort something out or get ideas above their station through the act of creativity.
Since my first exposure into this arty malarky I’ve made stuff about stuff - from early beginnings with CPT’s youth theatre making work about class to Spare Tyre’s radical elder projects making work with and for those who wouldn’t normally engage with the arts - I was trained and encouraged to create work that meant something to someone, for more than just the Tarquins and Gertrudes of this world.
The work I saw in the late 90’s and 00’s by CPT, Spare Tyre, Duckie, Gay Sweatshop, Tara Arts, Roundhouse, Drill Hall, Diorama and Clean Break was unashamedly charged, from companies who had a long history with occupation of space, community ownership and radical thinking. It now seems that to qualify as an engaged maker all you need is a few hundred colourful sweatshop t-shirts, be able to coerce the public into them whilst they carry shit above their heads - preferably down their high street for extra kudos.
Why has there been this move towards pointless flag waving? Numbers, my dear - numbers and data. Imagine you read somewhere that I have humbly worked with 1,000 participants whilst 250,000 people watched, everyone all supposedly involved - that looks lovely on an application doesn’t it? For better or worst that unlocks the keys to public funding. The work is deemed ‘value for money’ and the cost per head is worked out, a certificate sent to the lovely art wankers for thinking up such a brilliant idea that they just copied from the arts organisation down the road. You can see the philanthropist and trusts writing the cheques so that more, poor, working class souls of [insert town here] can get out for the day - utter bollox. Unpick these numbers and you’ll find something far darker - guesstimates, lies and skewed figures.
The days of political risk taking, creative demonstration and honest, punchy engaged work have been replaced by a series of processions, potato stamping and half arsed carnivals - if I have to see another light up umbrella being shoved into some teenagers hands I might just do the turn for them to save them the embaressment.
Numbers aside, why are so many going for mass appeal pointlessness? Well, It’s easier to hand someone a flag than to think up ways they can truly express themselves isn’t it? It’s easier not to hear how shit life is for many in our country - it’s easier to give them a nice day out and reap the rewards of data. It’s just all very ...easy.
I think there is a fear of actual engagement, with many in our sector being brought up in the ‘burbs surrounded by vases, art-in-the-home and an access to an education it’s an alien concept poverty, hardship and oppression - so they have no fucking clue how to engage with real people. What lies beneath neo-engagement is classism.
Time and time again I’ve come across subliminal classism in large scale engagement projects. These often present themselves as a debasing or reductive approach when working with those outside the middle class elite. One which I come across almost every time is that to get working class people to engage with engaged work you must coerce them. Free tickets, free coach to the venue, free lunch - they’ll even do the fucking show for you. I agree that making it free helps, but if you are only focusing on financial access and not the work you're making and what it is saying it will still be a pile of shit. I often sit in sector discussions about engagement - you would have thought a decade of talking turned into some action, it hasn’t. These talks are often called ‘How do you get people to Engage?’ or ‘Everyone is Creative, right?’ when they should be called ‘How do we peel them off their sofas and away from their televisions and iPhones?’
Prepare yourself for some honesty, wankers - the real reason we, the working classes tend not to engage in the traditional arts is because it mostly shit, a sandwich costs £6 in your venue, the audience look down at you like you’re doing it wrong or wearing the wrong thing and everyone is a posh, stuck up cunt who thinks they can save you from your life on a council estate.
At a recent gathering of some engaged organisations my company was repeatedly put on the table as ‘good but risky’ *hair flick* apparently demonstrating new methodologies in engaged practice - since when was risky, new?
I got into the arts as being a participant - encouraged to be apart of something led by a radical feminist theatre company. I was encouraged to be honest and ugly with that honesty. I was trained through engaged work to own my queerness, effeminacy, fatness and class - no art school, no War Horse, no mass-funded art centre, no procession down the high street. The practitioners I was trained by demonstrated how the arts could not only be an outlet but a career. I took that that training and applied it to my practice. I am the product of a series of risky practitioners and companies not taking the easy route.
If we carry on creating these reductive pieces of mass-produced Primark processions we fail all the potential makers of the future. We fail those who engage by not creating something worthwhile, meaningful or life changing. At the moment we are encouraging a generation of carnival enthusiasts - nothing more, nothing less. Whilst endorsing the thinking that the arts is as the tabloids would have everyone believe - pathetic.
So, when you’re next planning your fancy day out for white, nuclear, able bodied families ask yourself this - who am I creating this for? Will this create change? Is this a force for good? Does this encourage the next generation of artists, activists, thinkers and doers to be braver, stronger, empowered and more vocal? Or will it just be a memory - a thing that happened for 10 minutes one weekend in 2017?