David Cotterrell: Squaring the Circle: Examining cultural value through a re-evaluation of Arts Lab

Squaring the Circle

  1. A Lab is an ‘energy centre’ where anything can happen depending upon the needs of the people running each individual Lab and the characteristics of the building.
  1. A Lab is a non-institution. Its boundaries should be limitless.
  1. Within each Lab the space should be used in a loose, fluid, multi-purpose way.
  1. Anyone who is interested in changing anyone’s attitude to anything is committing a political act

We at the Covent Garden Lab have certain philosophic attitudes to the world, and we hope to show others by word and deed that these political/philosophical attitudes can be transmitted via non-traditional political media. Every person is a medium; use it carefully!

Philosophy and Characteristics (according to Jim Haynes and taken from International Times, Oct 1969)

Our project focussed on the often imitated, referenced and idolised original Arts Lab. It existed in Drury Lane, London as a short-lived experimental cultural space, set up by Jim Haynes and Jack Henry Moore in Covent Garden and operational from 1967-69. Hosting a gallery, theatre, cinema, café and discussion space, Arts Lab was the first ‘process space’ of its kind in the UK and provided a model for future Arts Labs to follow around the UK. Arts Lab was used as a space to experiment with new ideas and art works, empowering audiences and participants.

The research into Arts Lab and the ideas that it embodied and/or represented has been conducted using several methods, including desk research, exploration packs and interviews. Orlagh Woods’ ‘CSI’ style mapping of evidence began to reveal connections between fragmentary archives, internet sources and printed materials. However it is interesting that, relative to most contemporary organisations, comprehensive documentation was not readily accessible. This bears no relation to the intensity or importance of the activity that took place, but instead reflected a position, almost unthinkable for most UK arts organisations today: a deliberate refusal to document its achievements and evidence its track-record, because, as David Curtis quietly explained, ‘We believed in the ephemeral’. Some evidence does exist through the careful archiving of the short-run posters, journals, letters and photographs. However, the real insight remains with the pioneering artists, organisers and cultural explorers who spent time at Drury Lane during its two year first incarnation and who volunteered to share their fascinating memories with our project.

As a result, our research has centered around interviews with founders, participants and audience-members. We have tried to deconstruct some of the myths surrounding the organisation and to consider perceptions of its significance and influence.  The key interviewees readily volunteered to describe their memories, to discuss their understanding of its core philosophies, and their analyses of its achievements and challenges. The interviews offered comedic anecdotes, warm recollections and, at times, poignant suggestions of regret and reminders of mortality.  Through the veil of nostalgia we sought to understand why an organisation, so widely recognised, existed for such a short time and how much can defensibly be claimed for its legacy.

It is interesting to explore an organisation that appears to have resonated in ways that would have been difficult (and perhaps even audacious) to predict during its lifetime.  The core philosophies of Arts Lab, encapsulated provocative ideas which are widely lauded but frequently not adopted as practically implementable today: a democratic, evolving and self-determining organisational structure; completely responsive planning; a ‘Yes Policy’ enabling access to the Arts Lab stage and public platform to any and all proposals; an acceptance of failure as a valuable component of experimental work; a refusal or inability to conform to the accounting, organisational and administrative conventions necessary to achieve stable funding; fierce independence and an intrinsic belief in the value of its activities.

The outcomes and the level of cultural impact actually achieved by this chaotic and amorphous organisation would certainly have vindicated an investment of the modest funding that it required to survive. Ironically, from the founders’ point of view, it was an absolute refusal to predict or define these potential outcomes, which allowed it the potential to innovate – while arguably guaranteeing its itinerancy.

Today, challenged by pragmatic realism, funding structures and by the struggle to find metrics to consider the value of ideas, which we intrinsically find interesting, we appear to be more readily able to argue for the historic significance of experimental activity than for its continuing importance. The archive of responses, audio, transcriptions, photographs and other evidence focuses on Arts Lab, but also provokes challenging questions, which have contemporary resonance.

Arts Lab and its story offers a provocative, utopian and poignant evidence base from which to consider structural and intellectual challenges to promoting experimentation, courage, risk and investing in activity where the outcomes are not certain in the hope that extraordinary results could occur. While ArtsLab existed in the 1960s we hope that the concluding stages of this project will encourage consideration of the intellectual and circumstantial challenges to realising similar goals today.

It is interesting that we still find that the privileges of enfranchisement, sustainability, influence and platforms are often accessed through identifying tolerable roles within mainstream culture, markets and institutions. Despite Arts Lab’s rich legacy of artworks, artists’ careers and arts organisations, the idealism of half a century ago, did not lead to the wholesale change in the cultural landscape that some of the participants had expected.

As we allow ourselves to explore the evidence further, it seems increasingly surprising that the parameters and restrictions of funding regimes, institutional support and governmental understanding have not evolved further to accommodate and prioritise the experimental, discursive and open-ended practice which has produced so much of the innovation that we now champion within contemporary culture.

Philip Davis: Assessing the intrinsic value, and health and well-being benefits, for individual and community, of The Reader Organisation’s Volunteer Reader Scheme

Some of the results from the Built Environment Group

Some of the results from the Built Environment Group

Most Mondays, three, four or five of us sit together in front of a computer screen. We are watching video-recordings of reading groups. They are not what conventionally goes under the tile of reading groups when a group of people, mainly women, mainly middle class, decide upon a novel they are going to read in advance separately (usually a contemporary novel), and then meet to discuss it afterwards in one of the group-members’ homes. The groups we are watching are established on a quite different model. They are set up by The Reader Organization under its scheme of Get Into Reading. That means that the works – poems, short stories, even novels over a period of months – are read aloud in the group, live and shared, with time and space for re-reading and comment. The project involves a wide range of participants in terms of age and background, including people who have suffered recently from some sort of trouble, sometimes described and even treated in terms of ‘mental health issues’. Our task is to see the value of the shared reading model, compared with other forms of group activity (in this case, in a cross-over design, a group discussing the built environment with particular relation to The Reader Organization’s re-opening of Calderstones Mansion in Liverpool as a Centre of Reading and Well-Being).

We have done audio recordings before, with transcripts, but never video-recordings as now. It is impressive that the participants assented to it, and it is extraordinary to watch these groups – making little collaborative communities – in live action around a text of deep human presence. The teams of researchers watch them reading from John Clare’s poem of mental distress, ‘I am’, written in the mid 1840s from inside a lunatic asylum– ‘I am: but what I am none knows or cares./My friends forsake me like a memory lost /. . . And yet I am . . .’ Then the final stanza:

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below–above the vaulted sky.

After a while – after people have wondered how desirable or desperate this state is, and how close to a sort of death or paradise – one member says, ‘I don’t know what it did, it did something in me.’ The linguist in our research team has got interested in how many times, over many different sessions, the participants refer to literature directly doing something, as if it were both an active and (for all its language) unnaming presence, instead of the usual professionalized definitions, medicalized diagnoses, and second-hand paraphrase of ‘themes’. She is also interested in the regular but unpredictable shift of pronouns – I, me, it, he, we – in course of group discussion, across text, individual, group. But this time our linguist notes the phrase: ‘It did something in me – not to me’. She is reading the participants as carefully as they are reading poetry, working out (later with the use of linguistic markers and software analysis) how much the vocabulary and syntax becomes inflected by the poetry itself – how much the group-members are themselves in their way becoming a little more like poets.

Meanwhile one group member keeps coming back to why ‘Untroubling’ comes ahead of ‘untroubled’ in the poem. She hints – just a little – about causing trouble involuntarily in her own family through her own troubled state. That last stanza, says one group member, ‘is not paradise, just ordinary life without its pain, illness . . .’

5.1

So it is that, for all our micro analysis of the process, there is also, always, this larger personal level of meaning. Often, someone will quietly say something like the usually slangy ‘I’ve been there’ – but here as though the poem were a real mental site or place in the human world. Personal stories come out, in fragments – about a lost beloved in a mental institution, or one’s own sense of dereliction, or an aunt asking her nephew (as one of the men in the group recalls) ‘Am I dying?’ We do not know for sure yet whether to describe these accounts as ‘relevant’ to the text or not, as part of the intrinsic value of the reading group or only (as a purist might say) of ‘instrumental’ value in relieving or reliving past memories. But we do know that we do not see or hear such responses in the other group where they are (still imaginatively) considering the built environment.

We also know that we will not be coming up with a clear abstract dividing line between relevant and irrelevant, or even perhaps between intrinsic and instrumental. The two may be messily closer than we prefer. We are thinking of other terms. For instance. The built environment group-discussion is manifestly proceeding on the basis of everyday relevance: it is clear when someone crosses the invisible line and is (as we say in Liverpool) going off on one. But the reading groups works within a sort of created circle of resonance, going to and from the text at its centre – until or unless the bubble (as it were) is burst.

Soon, as another new move in the research, we shall be showing excerpts from this footage to the participants themselves, to see what they make of what happened. As the phrase goes, we are working on it, and it is – this watching of people themselves working together in intimate social collaboration – a privilege. The reflective individual and the engaged citizen: those AHRC things are there together and alive in this setting.

Claire Pajaczkowska: Compassion By Design

Tiles for interior architectural surfaces made from recycled high density polymers by people living with dementia in AHRC participatory design workshops. Credit: Julie Behseta.

Tiles for interior architectural surfaces made from recycled high density polymers by people living with dementia in AHRC participatory design workshops. Credit: Julie Behseta.

How can making art and design create better relationships inside institutions?

This research tests the idea that making art is more valuable than owning or appreciating art.

Edna (96) lives in a residential care home in Essex, with a hundred other residents and a dozen care workers. Each week she opts to join a group of residents who want to gather around the tables in the lounge in order to stitch, knit, talk and listen. Staff are welcome, if they can find time from the tasks that need to be completed. Families and visitors can join in too. Edna, like most of the residents and staff here, has never been to an art gallery or museum, but is curious to know what it means when we describe our workshops as making art and co-design. We bring offcuts and swatches of fabrics given us by manufacturers, shops and the municipal recycling centre. Families bring in materials that are familiar and personal. Individuals find their pieces of work from previous weeks and continue. Stitching seems to bring back memories. Garments that mother made are remembered and with this comes memories of childhood playtime toys, beds of the family kitchen, of setting up home in married life, of working in textiles, buying fabric at the haberdashery, knitting socks on four needles, Make Do and Mend. When we bring in catalogues of textile artists, like Louise Bourgeois, Barbara Hepworth, Tracy Emin, Grayson Perry – Outsider Art residents laugh. They call this the Workhouse and the Cheeky Girls. We show them the tiles encasing their work, made from recycled plastics from the kitchen, which make the square tiles that can be used to resurface the walls of the corridors and bathrooms in the Home. A renewed sense of purpose settles over the group’s weekly gathering as the sense of industry is part of the pleasures of the handiwork.

The tabletops are covered with pieces of cloth, threads, yarns, buttons, images, and each participant chooses the colours and materials they will work, sew, knit, fray, bind, twist, crochet , glue or stitch.

Each week brings new memories and makes links back to previous gatherings. The sense of the hands holding the materials as all work together is a bond more powerful than holding hands. The loose collectivity of individual collaboration exerts a strong gravitational pull and soon people come over to watch, to comment and to share thoughts. The quality of concentration as each pursues their own piece of work is a vivid and vibrant note of tensile strength.

How can this be recorded, noted, choreographed, documented? How then can it be evaluated? The value of this process is not only in the attention that it deflects from calling out to the doctor, nurse, care worker for something else. The value is in the quality of the attention intrinsic to this work, which enriches the moment, the day and the week. It is a culture of Insider Art.

We want to find ways of showing the value of this culture in creating a quality of attention that links our inner selves to the shared space of society. We think this quality of attention may help repair the ‘compassion deficit’ that the Francis Report noticed in the institutional care of the old and vulnerable.