'A Sense of Place' Conference - Yasmin Sidhwa

As one of the Catalyst Co-Lab Testbeds artists the ‘A Sense of Place’ Conference was a wonderful opportunity to share, discuss, participate and meet a range of artists, academics, creatives, educators and policy makers. I was fortunate to attend and help out throughout the three-day conference, from sharing my own creative practice and receiving feedback, to chairing talks by other artists and educators, to listening and watching and feeling and talking. For me, the event enabled me to meet others and together to question who we are, where we are from and what makes a ‘place’ somewhere we belong, somewhere that formed us and that we are part of forming.

Mesh Festival (c) David Fisher

From the Keynote speeches that opened the conference, to Mandala Theatre Company’s focus on young people’s connection or dis-connection to the communities they have grown up in, to the development plans for the Cultural quarter in Luton, the overarching question for me over the 3 days is: How can we enable ‘places’ to have a sense of community, where we are all celebrated and enabled to remain and where our contribution is embraced?

Mandala’s Rehearsed Reading presentation of excerpts of our new play ‘Castaways’ written by Atiha Sen Gupta and directed by me, provoked much dialogue and discussion. Sitting within a wider political framework where radicalisation of young communities’ consistently hits the headlines, Mandala’s new show is politically engaging and socially in tune with the experiences many young people from diverse cultures face, growing up in today's’ Britain.

Rehearsed Reading of 'Castaways' by Atiha Sen Gupta (c) Stu Allsopp

Rehearsed Reading of 'Castaways' by Atiha Sen Gupta (c) Stu Allsopp

 Our input to the conference reflected the research and development we have undertaken with young people in Luton and with young people nationwide in key cities, including, London, Stockton-on-Tees and Oxford. We used creative workshops, to enable young people to reflect on their sense of place and community, to explore it through a new lens and to compare their own views to the way young people and specific diverse communities are reflected in the media today.  

The Testbeds programme has enabled me to develop a partnership with Professor Uvanney Maylor, Director of the Institute for Research in Education, University of Bedfordshire, as part of our conference presentation she talked about her own research on race, culture and identity, in relation to Mandala’s project, contextualising it, and talking about how we are working together on a 3-year Arts and Humanities Research Council bid. 

The Feedback we received where we asked the audience what they liked about Mandala’s presentation and whether it made them think differently included these responses:

“It was dramatic, and I feel a realistic commentary on the development and change in relationships between people”.

“Highlighted just how fragile friendships can be and how deeply we each are imbedded in our own culture”.

Rehearsed Reading of 'Castaways' (c) Stu Allsopp

Rehearsed Reading of 'Castaways' (c) Stu Allsopp

“Presentation and discussion following the play was very engaging around ‘identity’ and ‘British Values’ and offered many pointers for further exploration. Interesting issues around education, teaching, policy at Govt level etc”.

“It is relevant and traces historical arguments that have just altered appearance – perhaps you can draw on historical link”.

“Certainly, I would like to see the full play developed”. 

For me as a Testbeds artist, it was a brilliant platform to share my creative practice in its R&D phase, with input from an academic, to receive feedback from other artists, creatives, academics and educators on the new work Mandala Theatre Company is developing and will tour nationally and hopefully internationally from April 2018.

“I liked the sense of being privileged in getting to enjoy and experience work in development, and having discussion around it. Not a theatre person (I work in visual arts) but really enjoyed this and also loved the strong visual (red/white/ black) staging”.

Chairing four inspiring talks about ‘Placemaking through participatory practice’ really confirmed my thinking about ethics in relation to coming in to a community as an artist (or as a policy maker), summed up by a quote from Nela Milic’s talk “If there isn’t a stake, there isn’t participation”, about how we work in a community, how we work with a community and how our art is made. 

Yasmin Sidhwa (c) Rachel Cherry

Yasmin Sidhwa (c) Rachel Cherry

This idea was developed with my Testbeds colleague, Rachel Cherry’s talk, about the role of the photographer. She highlighted this beautifully when she referred to the ethics of photography, and the photographer as a custodian of our imprint in the world, and a photograph as skin, asking “whose perspective are we seeing from”?  

These questions are central to what I took away from the conference as an artist, but also what I believe policy makers really need to take on board too, in relation to ‘A Sense of Place’ when looking at gentrification or development and ensuring that communities who have created and grown up in a place have a stake in any changes being made to it, and are enabled to remain and play a central role in their place of belonging.

So thank you to the Testbeds Team and to the University of Bedfordshire for creating a place of creativity and knowledge exchange!

'Night Light' by Nadia Davids (c) David Fisher
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