My Journey in Socially Engaged Practice
Since 1992, as part of my role in planning, designing and making art objects and interventions for public spaces, I worked with community groups, adults and teenagers with learning difficulties, those with a history of mental health problems, elderly care home residents, schoolchildren, tenants associations, out of school clubs and local writing and history associations.
The process tended to be part of a community ‘ownership’ initiative for a public space (with art in it). All meaningful decisions were already made and, at best my role was to make local people feel less annoyed and undermined while adding a few touches that they felt were their own. Trying to square this circle was exhausting – accepted commissioning practices have since become more enlightened, involving both artists and communities in the conversation much earlier in the decision making process.
In 1997 I became an ‘animateur’ for a group of small rural communities in North East Scotland. My role was to engage with residents of a scattered rural area in order to establish what needs those communities felt themselves to have – social, infrastructural, environmental or economic – and to support the realisation of concepts and enterprises that might grow out of these conversations.
I had to be able to account for myself in any language that might be required, conjuring conversational contexts and opportunities, as well as negotiating the conventional decision-making routes, which would give local people a voice and access to public resources, great and small.
In 2000 my work area was expanded at the request of members of the adjacent rural communities, funded by the Scottish Government and the European Regional Development Fund – a testament to its success. I continued to work in the area until 2004, then more widely with rural projects elsewhere in Scotland up until 2010.
The reach and insight this role gave me, both within the communities I served and up to the top of the political and economic tree, could not have been achieved by working in an area which was headlined as ‘art’ or ‘culture’, but there is no question that the creative approach and understanding my experience as a ‘public artist’ was the factor that made a difference in outcome from others working in the same context at the time.
These experiences have in turn informed the PaperShift Project.