The Role of Participatory Art in Developing Young People’s Voices
This case study of the DreamMakers Project was written for the NEPAN blog by Eva Sajovic following her presentation at the Participation, Photography and Politics of Space symposium in March 2013.
DreamMakers is a 16 month long, UK wide, artist-led participatory project with young people between the ages of 13 and 19 from Gypsy, Roma, Traveller and non Roma backgrounds. The young people are given training in photography, video, sound and internet to explore themes of identity, belonging, dreams and aspiration.
DreamMakers aims to have an impact on both the micro and macro level: instigating change for individuals, developing a model that might be adopted by others, and empowering individuals to represent their communities in the longer term. The role of participatory art and the artist is to support young people to develop their powers of self- expression, to see their cultural background as valuable and to tackle prejudice in the wider community.
The project is funded through the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s community cohesion programme and supported and overseen by the 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, an organisation providing representation for diverse communities and advocating for change through art. The project is due for completion in July 2013.
In this short article I will focus on the potential of art as a mechanism for broadening conceptions of identity.
4 locations Uk wide, Glasgow, Bolton, Peterborough and London (Newham), were selected on the basis of a presence of significant numbers of newly arrived Roma and the more established Romany and Traveller populations. A steering committee, following and feeding into, the project has been designed to establish a network, to share best practice and to promote understanding of different issues arising in different locations.
The project is resting on the theoretical model of contact theory (Allport, P., see note 1), according to which, to be effective, the contact must be positive and involve equal status between the participants; common goals; inter-group co-operations; the support of authorities and personal interaction.
DreamMakers uses contact theory in two ways: 1) ensuring mixed backgrounds in the composition of the groups of young people; and less obviously 2) introducing the groups to community institutions, such as a criminal court, in a context that promotes positive associations on both sides (i.e. from both the perspective of court staff and the young people).
In each location, a core ‘journalistic’ team of between 6 and 11 young people from Roma, Gypsy, Traveller and non-Roma backgrounds was created. Through the use of photography, video and sound, the young people engage with each other and the wider community, including other young people, parents, community leaders and organizations, documenting issues pertaining to their lives and their communities. Artist leads the process and spends nine days working with the participants, three days for training, four days collecting materials and two days for editing and preparing the exhibition. Visits to places and interviews with role models are arranged according to dreams and aspirations of the young people. For example, visit to the Citizen’s Theatre, Criminal Court, Football stadium, Radio Station, recording studio, etc. The project works with the idea of sustainability, by relating to activities and issues already inherent in each location, which have been initially identified during preparatory visits. For example, to fashion and performance that the young people in Bolton have been previously engaged with through a Young Roots project, re-enacted during the DreamMakers exhibition in Bolton.
The blog with participants’ work follows the project and serves as an ongoing display and a site of contact between the different groups. The work in each location culminates in a celebratory exhibition. The final exhibition opens on the 14 June 2013 at 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning and will be co-curated with two representatives from each of the locations. A programme around themes of multicultural identity and the role of art will surround the exhibition and bring together organisations, academics and other practitioners to share in the vision of future for these communities. The project will be accessible through a book to be published in September 2013.
The role of art in developing young people’s voices
Art is particularly well suited to working with vulnerable individuals as it offers fluidity and responsiveness to the needs, skills and capabilities of participants. It works as a contrast to structured and at times rigid school working methods. It is a successful means for working with individuals newly arrived into the country with language difficulties. Through art, and especially democratic forms like photography and video, the young people can share skills and relate to each other. Which promotes feelings of communality and belonging. Art projects in schools can act as seeds of connectivity, encouraging engagement between the parents and the school. They are also important for impacting on how the school sees the young people.
The role of the artist leading the project is to initiate activities, introducing the tools that participants can further explore through structured activities, games and creative application. She is the co-producer of knowledge, facilitating students’ empowerment through collective awareness and non-authoritarian collaboration. “The teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and reconsiders her earlier consideration as the students express their own”. (Freire, P., see note 2) She helps create a safe space where any personal loss (arising from abrupt transitions in personal circumstances) can be acknowledged. Where participants can engage in active research and introduce their own interests, skills, values, and past experiences to the process. It confirms what Alice McIntyre has suggested: “that increasing teaching-learning experiences that are relevant to students’ everyday lives provide opportunities … to create collaborative relationships with adults that foster personal, social and academic skills”.(McIntyre, A., see note 3)
The exhibition (taking place in all the locations as well at 198 at the end of the project) is the culmination of the process, helping the participants to understand the project and the work itself. In the words of one of the participants: “it is only when you display the work to the public that you get to understand it. You don’t understand it before.” It helps build on the individuals’ confidence by symbolising the possibility of achievement and positive recognition from within the community without compromise to cultural identity. It provides a focal point for parents, teachers and members of the wider community and clarifies the importance of working together and sharing.
Through learning about curating and display of the work the young people are introduced to the responsibility involved in bringing the personal to the public and get an insight into the complexity of representation.
The exhibition in Glasgow was located in the Govanhill Community Baths. In the words of one participant: ‘I think it’s amazing. I can’t believe it. My pictures are in the swimming pool and everybody can see it. I think wow – that’s amazing – how I done that?’
1. Allport, W. G. (1954) The Nature of Prejudice, Reading (Mass.); London: Addison-Wesley.
2. Freire, P. (2000) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Continuum.
3. Mcintyre, Alice (2006) Activist Research and Student Agency in Universities and Urban Communities, http://uex.sagepub.com/content/41/6/628 (last accessed 14 April 2013).
Eva Sajovic is a Slovene born artist photographer, living and working in London. Her focus is on socially engaged, participatory practice, in particular working with marginalised communities or those affected by processes of change. You can see the original presentation she gave at the Participation, Photography and the Politics of Space symposium, along with the other key speakers talks, in an earlier blog post here.
The symposium was programmed by Alicia Bruce, jointly coordinated by NEPAN, engage Scotland and Sir Duncan Rice Special Collections & Museums, and hosted on 12th March 2013 at the Sir Duncan Rice Library at the University of Aberdeen.