Making a Meal of it
St Helens & Tate Liverpool, 17th & 18th April 2018
Having been to several arts conferences, I see a pattern emerging. A gathering of producers, curators, artists, directors and funders can often have a predictable structure, language and vibe. What is the collective noun for artists? I wonder. As one person I met said ‘arriving in St Helens station I saw other arty people, and it seemed obvious; they must be going’.
So when I read the call out from Heart of Glass; an invitation for ‘Making a Meal of it’ I wanted to go. It was billed as a different/new format for dialogue. A conversation through action. A possible anti-conference? The event was the fifth iteration of ‘With For About’, the Collaborative Arts Partnership Programme (CAPP), which brings together partner organisations from across Europe. The idea was that 70+ creative practitioners would be presented a challenge; to make a meal, together, from scratch, in the space of six hours.
The gathering began in the Town Hall. There was an introduction to St Helens by the Heart of Glass team; Emma, Suzanna, and Patrick. Artist Joshua Sofaer gave an amusing outline of the task for the day. He told us that after a long and weary discussion about health & safety /food hygiene (e.g. should we all sign liability agreements? Should we be given food safety training?) They decided to go for zero bureaucracy. He said we are to take collective responsibility for what we produce. We must be honest about what we have made. How refreshing, I thought: imagine if we applied this rule to the art projects we make.
There was a generous budget £555 for each group to create their piece, there were six groups in total. This was to feed 69 people, for one course only. We could spend it how we liked, we did not have to use it all, but we could if we wanted. Each team had to present one course, the food could be imaginary, symbolic and/or performative. The only requirement was that we should document, explain or justify our decisions, to our 69 guests that evening.
This was followed by a reading of a provocation by Chrissie Tiller. She spoke about an urgent need to create new kinds of civic spaces. To work collectively to construct new forms of participation and exchange. There was talk about nurturing artists, resilience, legacy, alternative voices, activism, rejecting hierarchies and the removal of elitism, amongst many other issues. The words brought together everything that optimises socially engaged practise. The desire to engage and empower communities, to be radical and yet build sustainable models for operating in an embedded way. She charted the complexities and contradictions of working in this field.
Once we had been given our instructions, we selected an envelope from a washing line, which randomly placed us in a group. I found myself with 12 other people in the blue team. We made our way to our base inside a local church hall. Our group was a mixture of artists, curators and producers. Five members were from Italy, Spain, Budapest, and Ireland, the rest from were different parts of the UK. Herman was the only man in our group, but then the conference was mostly women delegates, a reflection of the wider arts industry possibly?
We re-read the provocation and then entered into a two hour debate. Questioning, brain-storming (or ‘Storm of the Brain’ to quote Cristina) idea flinging, madness. We encountered a rising sense of urgency and panic. The need to decide what are we going to do. The want to invest in local narratives. The realisation we were sitting meters away from a food bank. How can we justify funding an arts ‘jolly’ in the context of a community which suffers extreme poverty and hardship? Yet artists so rarely get given this freedom; to perform an idea in a day, take risks, and do something experimental. The fact was this is not a mission to realise a commission in a day. The importance of dialogue and clarity of thinking, over product.
We got onto the topic of food snobbery and class. How people judge other people by the food they eat. We tried to explain to our European members what is considered middle class or posh food in Britain, and how junk food is associated with working class people. The cliché and expectations that arty people are vegans, and eat organic, non-gluten food. We scribbled down the term ‘Wotsits and Avocadoes’, and looked up local pie shops. During Lunch we did a pie-tasting. There was plenty of options to choose from, but this plan got dumped when we realised another group had already chosen to do pies. Our team ‘ambassadors’ (Jenny &Sheena) returned from a meeting announcing we had been delegated desserts. This was not such a bad result I thought.
Sheena told us about wandering into a cookie shop in the mall. The man who ran the shop was friendly and curious about what these two ‘non-local’ people were up too in St Helens. When they explained the idea, his response was unexpectedly positive. Joking he said ‘Give me £100 and you can have everything in the shop, and then I can go home!’ So with this in mind, we discussed the possibilities of working together with him. He was skilled at sugar-craft, and was able to write words on giant cookie in a rainbow of colours. Earlier, we had briefly discussed gathering local experiences & opinions by speaking to many people on the street, but this idea seemed too hurried and superficial. But what if we engage just one person? Making a meal which reflects our conversation with that individual. Surely it is better to do something meaningful with one person, then to hastily try to connect to a whole community.
Mark (the cookie artist) is an interesting person to speak too. We talked about his memories of doing art at school. As he piped our words onto five giant cookies, everyone joined the debated on the language we should use. We choose words such as ‘obfuscation’ from the intro sheet, a word that few of us understood, yet was being used to talk about academic language and exclusivity. We quoted Mark. I did a drawing of Mark as he worked, which got turned into place mats for the tables. I ended up taking a photo, and sitting outside in the mall drawing from my phone; he was moving too fast to capture his features. After we had photographed the drawing, I gave him the original, as I wanted to say thank you for being so kind and enthusiastic. He said he would give it to his mum.
Mark told us several significant anecdotes about St Helens, the one I remember the most is; ’it is so nice seeing some friendly faces walking into my shop. Often people who come in aren’t happy, they’re angry. Like I have upset them, just because I can’t tell them the time.’ His story echoed with sadness, and spoke of a disconnect which exists in many modern towns. I know it is just one person’s perspective, but it tells of multiple interactions, over a period of time.
When all our cookies were ready we had to make it back to the town hall for the evening event. We asked Mark if he wanted to join us, or for us to ask the guests a question directly on his behalf. He considered this, but then decided he rather that we handed out his mobile number, and got everyone who was there to give him one piece of advice. Thus extending the conversation and engagement on beyond the shop, to 69 potential strangers.
The evening was a bonkers mix of performances, musical chairs, dancing, tasting and talking. Very few of the groups spend their whole budget, some did not even open the envelope. There is a publication which reflects each of the courses in a more detailed way onto paper, but for the sake of this text I will list what I remember of the different approaches taken;
1. The first group was more of a performance. They stood by the entrance with bowls of red crushed berries (I later found out these were mulberries and herbs). The offered to smear this mixture onto our skin, onto our faces or hands. A kind of art baptism. They said something about witches and spells (sorry I can’t remember exactly). It was exciting, sensual and an act of rebellion. This group also did a bit at the end (see point 7.)
2. The second group made us sit in total silence, we were told we would be handed a loaf of bread to share between each table. We were to break off a piece for ourselves, to communicate without words. There was some wine and garlic butter. The bread was still warm. The artists read a text, a poetic monologue which revealed their conversations and questions.
3. The third group made us get up and start dancing to old motown classics (I was not yet drunk enough, but I didn’t need much persuading!). Whilst we danced their team placed 69 different shaped bowls, receptacles, and glasses onto each place. We were invited to choose a vessel which connected to us, to sit in that place. We were served a delicious choice of two soups, I spoke to new people. We had a giggle about the tiny toy tea pot the guy next to me had chosen.
4. The next group served us pie and beer, both locally sourced. They read a text about their experience, first in Hungarian, then translated into English. They asked a question on a label for us to respond to ‘How do we engage with local experience in our work?’
5. My group was next. Keelin Murray (from Create in Ireland) did the introduction to the cookies, and spoke about our ideas. Jenny Rutter (from Super Slow Way) answered some of the questions about the words we chose.
6. The last group handed everyone a table spoon. They proceeded to inject a liquid using giant syringes into each persons’ spoon. A lady spoke introducing the course as ‘Teech’ums Radicaliser’ – a tonic for learning and unlearning. The remedy had a list of ingredients; Cloves, ginger, cinnamon, mint, thyme, beetroot, whisky, lemon, rosemary, carrots wild garlic and water. Each of the herbs had a reason for being chosen. The mixture tasted good, like sweet medicine.
7. As we exited the hall the first group was waiting at the doors with a message. I was handed a small bottle and a postcard with a beautiful drawing of herbs on it. The artist told me; ‘Here is a potion to end patriarchy’. A welcome gift which I was happy to receive and will treasure and use it.
The following day was held in the Tate Liverpool. We had the extra task of putting together a publication. Each group had the space of two pages to fill. Our group had the drawing I did, and a text by artist Jess Allen. Once this had been completed everyone sat together in a circle to reflect on the experience and to ask any questions which had come out of the process.
The questions included;
How can you know the urgency of a place?
What would we have done differently if we could do it again?
Did the money spoil or challenge the process?
Do we think differently about participation by actively participating in a process about participation?
What do we mean by ‘local’ and what is the alternative?
This discussion was interesting but also difficult and at times angry. A few people pointed out the obvious elephants in the room. Those being the gender balance in terms of power, who gets paid/who does not get paid, the fact artists are often expected to work for free, the fact most of the people attending were white. Many admitted to being exhausted by the process. The same questions come up over and over again, but few of us have any answers. Many of the delegate were quiet and listened, myself included. It is hard to speak openly about difficult issues. The fear of being judged by the clumsiness of my own words, my privilege, and my assumptions.
We talked about group dynamics, how to encourage openness and trust. Yet this was still a room of mostly strangers, who had spent one day together, talking, making and consuming. The experience had been exciting, inspiring and fun. The conversations had thrown up so many more questions. The inequalities and dilemmas that exist in socially-engaged art practice are big, and aren’t going to go away in one morning's de-briefing session. It is however vital we keep asking these questions, take time to share our knowledge and work together so that things might change.
My team were; Amy Pennington, Jenny Rutter, Cristina Pancini, Jess Allen, Leonie Higgins, Keelin Murray, Sara Cocker, Sheena Barrett, Jade Beavon, Herman Bashiron Mendolicchio, Andrea Simon, and Mark Whibley.