Sitting on the floor of the theatre space, before the five hour session begins in earnest, I have only a vague grasp on what a socially engaged arts practice is (less still about how to explore one). Catrin Evans, artistic director of A Moment’s Peace, subsequently guides this exploration generously; with lots of space for pauses, discussion, and reflection. Time is given over to let ideas be articulated, passed back and forth, and finally reshaped a-new. When we conclude after a busy five hours I know very little of Catrin Evans’ own body of work, but she has instead communicated a rich understanding of her working process – and in particular the rigours she holds herself accountable to.
Understanding and grappling with these rigours is central to this workshop; we break off into pairs and tease out the grey areas. We attempt to figure out the problematic elements of relationships between artist and participant, participant and participant, and participant and audience. There are a lot of difficult questions, and most of the answers involve a lot of umm-ing and err-ing. It is clear that a socially engaged arts practice is one that gives a great deal of importance to these political, ethical, and aesthetical concerns. It isn’t enough to simply want to use art ‘to do good’, there’s a lot more to consider and question.
Why work with people for a project?
What makes a piece of work participatory?
What is the role/function of the artist in developing a project?
Where do politics, ethics, and aesthetics sit within a project?
What are the values embedded in a project/whose values are these?
What is the motivation/goal for a project?
Lastly we turn these questions to our own practices more directly, and develop a single idea for a piece of practice that we would consider to be socially engaged. The grey areas get wider and wider, and subsequent feedback and discussion with the group stretches this greyness out further still. Despite the confusion the real benefit is that there is now a lot of new space within these ideas, a lot of choices, decisions, and potentialities.
A while after the workshop has passed I find it difficult to explain with much clarity what a socially engaged arts practice is, but instead I have a set of considerations and strategies to develop a socially engaged arts practice of my own, which is very exciting indeed.
Written by Andrew Edwards, MLitt Playwriting and Dramaturgy