Bellin – Arts Practice and Collaborative Learning Conference

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Jonathan Myers

Presentation during workshop:

Arts Practice and Collaborative Learning

Berlin

18th June 2012

I got involved in art around 13 years ago through my relationship with Rialto Youth Project. I got involved because I wanted to do something at that time at the age of 8 or 9. My first experience was being part of the mapping group in which I was a participant. ‘Mapping’ was a project which mapped the lives of young people in art. Through this group we had a link with the Irish Museum of Modern Art, with this link we made visits to The irish museum of modern art regularly and also spent a lot of time in a studio space there. I was part of mapping for 3 years. We done all sorts of art from 3Dimensional heads made from clay to 3D blueprints of our home to painting and drawing. We as participants had little control from what I can remember. We would turn up to a session that had already been planned in advance as this would have been the method used when working with kids our age. Through this many relationships were formed, friends, supports and future relationships with institutions.

After that I asked to join the dolphin art group in which Fiona was the artist having just started in RYP. My role was still a participant but with more control on the direction in which the project went and how we got there. Within that group we had done and learned many things from making a 3D model of our local area to doing a mural in Philadelphia with the Philadelphia mural arts program. The 3D model was an exploration into the group’s feelings about where they lived, and then the mural was about dreams, ambitions in relation to where we lived. We took this and incorporated it into the mural in Philadelphia.

After the end of the dolphin art group I received a letter in the door. The 3 main questions on the letter were:

– are you interested in power?

– are you interested in Art?

– are you interested in telling your story?

If you answered all 3 questions Yes, then you are asked to attend a meeting for which I had. At this point I had trusting relationship with many staff at Rialto youth project. I had known Fiona for around 4-5 years and this all helped me in the decision to attend because I trust where they were going with this project.

This was different to every other art group i was involved in, this was a COLLECTIVE! So the workers and the artist were also interested in the same 3 things. It wasn’t just about what we were interested in as young people, and there was no one person that held the control, we were all equal and could bring our own ideas and even lead a session. After attending several months of discussion and debate if I remember right – quite a difficult process. The collective narrowed to a small group of 12 people. 1 artist, 2 youth workers and 9 young people.

Power was our theme. We got to a point through lots of debate and building trust where we would tell our stories and under the right conditions if people felt ok with that their story would be shared within the collective but the story had to remain anonymous. The questions asked for you to tell a story to were:

Tell me a time you felt powerful? And

Tell me a time you felt powerless?

This was not to ask for just negative or just positive stories we asked for both. Anonymity was the foundation of our project. If you knew who’s story was being read aloud you could not say anything. We decided the stories stay anonymous so that to protect the person who wrote and those mentioned in it. At the time I was an extremely private person and the idea of talking about something personal would be a change of immeasurable proportions so as you’d guess I found it quite difficult and with hindsight I don’t think I went personal enough but for me to do what I did then was huge. I was making myself vulnerable by telling this story and I made it quite clear that whatever was said cannot be taken as a cry for help. When Fiona returned with the stories to the collective for them to be read aloud my heart was beating so fast. During the reading my story came up and I knew some people knew it was me so at that point I was frustrated that I gave myself away but after the story was over no one took notice that it was mine and respected the anonymity. However, there were limits to it being anonymous made me feel that I didn’t own it fully because it was a story without a physical presence behind it. If I was to do it again I’d still remain anonymous but with the same regrets of the lack of ownership.

After our first public event, we filtered the stories into categories and the common theme that came from that was the police.

So we took that theme of ‘police’ and went with it. It led us to another event and then over a year later we had a 6 week residency/exhibition where we held workshops and displayed stories in what became our evidence room were people could take a box which held a story from a shelf, sit at a desk read it in silence and place it back on the shelf when they were finished.

While planning for the exhibition/residency, I found what I was interested in. I wanted people to feel how important and fragile these stories were. The evidence room was dark, with 5 black shelving units which held the stories which were in white boxes. In the space was a small white table with a white chair and a light on the table to give that evidence feel as seen in police movies and TV programs. The layout was everything to me so I focused on that where other people in the collective were more concerned with other elements such as the workshops.

After the exhibition I thought the collective was a group of people who would change the world through a creative platform. I didn’t know that the 6 week exhibition/residency would become the last point in which the collective stayed together. Most of the younger people in the group had now got other priorities committing to college work, employment, travel and so on.

I struggled to decide what to do because what I had done for the past 11 years was associated with art and expression and being part of a group meant there was someone else to point the way.

So in -December of 2011 I applied to studio 468 with an idea of my own. Studio 468 is a local art studio for professional artists who want to work in community context. The idea was called ‘sticky labels’ and it was an exploration of names used to identify people and places. This idea came from my involvement in the ‘what’s the story? Collective’ where I was referred to as ‘young person’ or ‘youth’ rather than artist or youth worker which I felt had more status. This brought up a whole new debate which we never really got around to answering. Also during WTS we explored patterns in our stories and how these related to class, for example the level of policing in our area and how that might be different in a more affluentp area. We discussed what it meant to be ‘disadvantaged’ and I had explored what that label did to me personally, how it made me feel.

My studio 468 project was a 6 week piece of work with a 3 day exhibition at the end. I made a spider web like sculpture using material well known to working class people as it’s used as communal washing lines in flat complexes. This web was meant to reflect the tangle of oppression I exist in and those labels that reinforced that.

At that point in the studio I realised I had spent 6 weeks doing something which I loved, which I had total control and power over. It was great. Working solo, I was free to do anything. My journey now continues. I have applied for an art portfolio course which I hope will help me get into a degree course, when I am a mature student –which is 23 in Ireland. I had considered going straight to a degree course a few years ago through an access program but I have concerns around this as I dislike it because I feel these access programs would label me as disadvantaged, poor and so on. I do my best to avoid these sorts of situations and my doing so may have set me back in life.

I also still connect to Rialto Youth Project. I volunteer on the management committee of the youth project and attend meetings that interest me. I still have a relationship with Fiona. Although we are not working formally in the collective now, we talk regularly about art, social issues and ideas. The work the collective did produced new learning that is now part of the youth project. Story telling was recognised as a transformative process which needed trust, a safe environment and anonymity. This method will continue to be used in Rialto in the work done there. The way we approached story telling is really important to me and Fiona and we would like to invite you to participate in a short workshop to delve deeper into that experience.

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2 thoughts on “Bellin – Arts Practice and Collaborative Learning Conference

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