Table Discussion Notes: Interactions, Leeds. 8th October 2014 (collated discussion and thinking from all the participants in dialogue with and written up by Dani Abulhawa)

The table I was on was tasked with constructing a landscape of socially engaged performance practice. We drew pictures of our city, added people and buildings, a canal system, and we looked beyond at the outskirts, the rural areas, and the margins.

The first group tackling the landscape task set out a twin-city consisting of artist-driven projects on one side, and policy-led or institutionally driven projects on the other. There was a sense of tension between these two approaches, but a canal system was added to represent the strands of personal politics that connect and divide these two cities.

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The second group talked about how the weather affects this city, and drew lines representing wind and rain hitting the city. The weather tended to symbolise wider political decisions that impact upon the landscape of socially engaged performance practice, particularly the ‘natural disasters’ of funding cuts. One participant talked about ‘weathering the storm’ of financial changes, but also acknowledged that a lack of funding and inclement weather can trigger interesting approaches to the creation of performance work.

We discussed the rural outskirts of the city – both in terms of a metaphorical rural or Edgelands, and the actual rural provision for socially-engaged performance practice. Many of the participants felt the same kind of tensions existed between artists and policy makers as those seen in urban areas, but on a smaller scale.

The issue of rural provision raised a point about craft in relation to art. Craft-based projects were seen as a way to make community art accessible. Later on in the discussion several people talked about the need to provide a way in for people, to the world of performance and art, and how recognisable and comfortable cultural and artistic forms can be a good way to bring people into a process they are unsure about. The issue of needing doorways in to socially engaged performance practice was expressed a few times; the need for a hook that appeals to a particular person or group of people.

Within the city, traditional theatre buildings and performance spaces were often deemed to be unsuitable, having too many associations with a world apart from that of the community who is being engaged with. Several participants expressed a need for ‘new spaces’, ‘open spaces’ and ‘found spaces’ that do not come with a history of performance practice.

Crossroads and roundabouts were added to the city, to illustrate how an artist navigates their own practice through the landscape, changing routes and approaches in relation to other people and outside influences.

A few participants added bombs or mines – suggesting that the landscape was fraught with problems, such as cultural clashes, issues of commodification, ethical concerns, and problems around questions of skill and value.

Also at the outskirts of this city were artists who don’t consider their work to be socially engaged, and community-led practices and subcultures not generally regarded as ‘art’, such as festivals, mumming, cheese-rolling, amateur dramatics, graffiti cultures, activism, pop-ups and small-scale gigs, etc.  All of which were recognised as socially engaged forms of practice in their own right. Therefore, there was a tension around the defining and commodification of socially engaged practices, both in terms of how this de-values some groups and organisations, and places pressure for outcomes and impact on others.

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Image credit: Sarah Spanton

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