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reposted from the critical theory and information studies PhD seminar blog

For the past several months, a network of bay area activists and artists have been staging protests surrounding a fleet of luxury coach buses. These private buses regularly use public bus stops to pick up hi-tech employees from San Francisco and shuttle them to Silicon Valley. The buses are used by a range of tech companies, but the protests have become known as the “Google Bus” protests.

 

google bus protests, 2014, link to source

google bus protests, 2014, link to source

 

Following the initial protests, local officials were relatively quick to come to an agreement that involved the shuttle companies paying the city a one dollar fee for every time a bus uses a public bus stop. The particular details of this private-bus-on-public-bus-stop situation are somewhat banal, to the extent that most highways and roads in the US, could be described as public infrastructure that supports the use of private automobiles. But such a reading, fails to get to the heart of the matter, nor does it allow one to fully appreciate why the “Google Bus” is a fascinating object to put at the center this discussion.

As a site of protest and class antagonism, the “Google Bus” functions as both a literal expression of privatized infrastructure, and a symbolic expression of economic inequality. Through this lens, the buses should be read as one small part of a complex set of entangled systems, that define the current conditions and flow of urban life. While an account of the these systems would include food, education, healthcare, waste management, water and power, communications, and transportation, it is housing, or housing policy, that is arguably at the center of this discussion. While there are a range of rent control and preservation policies that are unique to San Francisco, the unbridled “success” of the one percent, the suppression of real wages for working and middle class households, and a failure of civic imagination, are national trends, and have directly translated into rising rent and greater precariousness for working people. The average rental costs, for most major US cities, has exceeded the recommended 30% mark of  household income. In Los Angeles, where I’m writing from, the median rent has increased by 25% in the last 12 years, and more than half of the population pays rent that exceed 30% of their income. Across California, roughly 20% of households spend more than 50% of their income on rent.

The architect-artist Teddy Cruz argues that we have entered into an era of “urban crisis,” where most major cities around the world are characterized by dramatic social-economic inequality. In a collaborative lecture with political scientist Fonna Forman, the two argue that historic notions of happiness have directly translated into the design of cities. From Aristotle’s conception that happiness coming from our capacity to collaborate with our peers, to modernist notions of happiness coming from personal pleasure; the urban landscape has shifted from cities that centered around public commons, to enclaves of private space. For Forman and Cruz, this spatial architectural shift, is accompanied by the decline of “civic imagination,” and our sense of social responsibility.

 

Teddy Cruz, Urban Crisis 2013

Teddy Cruz, Urban Crisis 2013

 

In San Francisco, like many other cities, the social contracts of solidarity have long been broken. Whether it be personal stories of senior citizens and longtime residents being evicted, or the gradual erosion of opportunity for working people, the Google bus protests mark the continuation of working class protest and struggle. While one could situate, some of the more expressive moments of the Google bus protests within a genealogy of activist art, or regional traditions of San Francisco pranksters and interventionists, the critical themes motivating the work has a strong connection to the history of rent strikes. While the labour movement has been largely organized to combat worker exploitation – abolition of child labour, promotion healthier work conditions, fair wages, job security et cetera; residential rent is also one of the major ways wealth is extracted from the working class.

The history and logic of urban life can largely be understood as an expression of class hierarchy and antagonism. The very systems that support and manage urban life, often reinforce the socio-economic divisions of privilege and oppression. Reflecting this structural dynamic, there is a history of socialist and union organized residential rent strikes. In the UK and other social democracies, rent strikes are identified as part of the historic prelude to the formation of publicly owned social housing. In the US, rent strikes played a direct role in the short-term lowering of rents and the promotion of regional rent protection laws.

Rent Strike, New York Times, 1919.

Rent Strike, New York Times, 1919.

 

In the case of the recent bus protests, locating the protests along the transportation system, foregrounds an intuitive understanding that urban life is defined by an assemblage of related systems. When taken to its rational conclusion, one will inevitably arrive at a socio-ecological orientation. That is to say, the accounting of corporate profits, doesn’t acknowledge the true social and environmental costs enabling business as usual to happen. A holistic account of urban life is a prerequisite of a more equitable “civic imagination.”

In California, many have been quick to present a supply-and-demand analysis of the “rental crisis,” but a free-market approach is not going to resolve the layered problems we face. For one, there is little incentive for for-profit real-estate developers and landlords to undo the very market conditions that are creating substantial profits. Nationally, the US federal government should make considerable investments in affordable housing, to be released as regional grants. Regionally, the combination of a affordable housing trusts, that would keep large collections of housing stock outside of the market, along with universal rent control, and the creation of rent-to-own policies, or the expansion of subsidized mortgages for the remaining private housing stock, are a few possibilities for addressing the issue of affordable housing.

I want to conclude this text, by directing our attention to the “Freedom Budget,” a comprehensive proposal written by civil rights and labour activists in 1965. The “Freedom Budget” summarized its goals with the following list:

1) the abolition of poverty
2) guaranteed full employment
3) full production and high economic growth
4) adequate minimum wages
5) farm income parity
6) guaranteed incomes for all unable to work
7) a decent home for every American family
8) modern health services for all
9) full educational opportunity for all
10) updated social security and welfare programs
11) and equitable tax and money policies

 

References

Dewan, Shaila. “In Many Cities, Rent Is Rising Out of Reach of Middle Class.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

“Freedom Budget.” – Social Justice Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. http://socialjustice.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/index.php/Freedom_Budget#The_Budget.27s_Proposals

Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. New York: Verso, 2012. Print.

“High Rent, Few Options: Rising Rents and Short Supply Have Angelenos Weighing Their Choices | 89.3 KPCC.” High Rent, Few Options: Rising Rents and Short Supply Have Angelenos Weighing Their Choices | 89.3 KPCC. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

KPCC in Los Angeles, produced an interactive map illustrating the rental costs and income ratio for the greater LA region. http://projects.scpr.org/static/longreads/high-rent-few-options/

“How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained) | TechCrunch.” TechCrunch. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. An overview of the regional dynamics and history of San Francisco’s housing crisis. http://techcrunch.com/2014/04/14/sf-housing/

Illich, Ivan. Deschooling Society. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.

Nichols, John. The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism. Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2011. Print.

“The Urbanization of Happiness and the Decline of Civic Imagination with Fonna Forman and Teddy Cruz.” YouTube. YouTube, 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. Lecture about the history of happiness and urbanization https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KK33-qDLCow

“Why the Private Market Can Never Solve SF’s Housing Crisis – 48 Hills.” 48 Hills. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

SF housing crisis and affordable housing alternatives. http://48hillsonline.org/2014/04/14/private-market-can-never-solve-sfs-housing-crisis/

 

Shoreditch_Park_Dustin_O'Hara_001

Shoreditch Park Project, Dustin O’Hara.

re-posted from the Shoreditch Park Project Website.

Standing in Shoreditch Park, it’s hard to comprehend the scale of destruction that set things in motion. Like many parks in east London, it’s a former WWII bomb site. A neighborhood of Victorian era houses flattened by the Blitz. Now, some seventy years later, it’s a well used and well equipped neighborhood park. Bordered, almost exclusively, by council owned social housing estates, the area has an established working class history. As part of this history, for nearly thirty years prior to becoming a park, the site was home to a neighbourhood of prefabricated homes.

Organized and funded by the British central government, the Temporary Housing Act of 1944, provided hundreds-of-thousands of people with their own prefabricated home. For many residents, their ‘prefab’ gave them their first day-to-day experience of living with indoor plumbing, modern appliances, and what middle class sensibilities would consider sufficient living space.

The Shoreditch Park Project emerged out of the basic impulse to orient oneself, to understand the social and material landscape of the neighbourhood, and the stories of how it has changed. In its current form, the park, offered a prime case study for exploring how social memory and local mythologies are reflected in the landscape. As a point of research, the Shoreditch Park Project has been thematically focused on this neighbourhood of prefab homes.

As factory built homes – the postwar prefabs, can be understood as an architectural-industrial expression of hope. The prefab program was a critical nexus point, of social policy, industrial urbanism, and design thinking that reshaped the domestic reality and daily lives of countless people. At the same time, the prefab housing program was part of a much wider campaign to rebuild the nation. From the National Health Service, to Universal Child Benefit, to state funded education, numerous programs, that act as instruments for social justice, emerged in the postwar years.

dustinohara_ahoreditch_park_project_interview

Shoreditch Park Project, conducting an interview in the park. Listening to memories of living in the prefabricated homes in Shoreditch Park.

How does one situate this, established historic narrative of the Temporary Housing Act, in relation to the less fixed mythologies of life in this specific neighborhood? When interviewing people about how the neighborhood has changed, you quickly find contradictions and anecdotal details that reveal competing interests and embedded power relations that have historically shaped the neighborhood and continue to inform the stories we tell ourselves about the place. Often the voice itself, acts as powerful cultural register, determining our relational understanding of class, race, gender, and region. With regard to the prefabs, and housing in general, one will quickly comes to realize that housing is always an issue, and that the critical problems the prefab program addressed are still present, in one way or another.

Working with a group of youth researchers, we’ve held six months of weekly workshops, anchored in a curriculum that mixes new media literacy with heritage and social documentation research. We’ve reviewed the local council archives, hosted tea party gatherings, collected man-on-the-street style interviews, and gone on field trips to postwar prefabs that are still in use. In total we’ve conducted over 60 oral history interviews. The project has culminated in the production of an audio visual collection, website, park installation, and short sound piece. In this way, the project is a research/educationally driven interpretive project, that actively relocates the notion of cultural heritage from a noun to a verb, from a fixed object to an inherently collaborative and performative act.

– Dustin O’Hara, 20th June 2013

Visit the Shoreditch Park Project Website for more.

The following was originally written at the introduction to the meyouhoxtontoo.net publication.

Welcome! This online publication emerged out of the desire to document the project Me You Hoxton Too. Me You Hoxton Too was a collaborative effort between Access All Areas, PEER Participate, and artist Dustin O’Hara. It took place in the east London neighbourhood of Hoxton in 2012. Like most socially engaged work, its function and meaning is inseparable from the wider social, material, and historical conditions that have enabled the work to happen. As a way of discussing the many issues that have, and are, shaping the Hoxton neighborhood, while simultaneously reflecting the discursive nature of Me You Hoxton Too, this publication contains a number of interviews and texts from the various players involved. The hope is that this collection of information will provide an enriched understanding of both Hoxton the place as well as the various projects being presented.

– Dustin O’Hara

This publication has been made possible through support from PEER Participate,
with funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Edited and compiled by Dustin O’Hara.
View the Table of Contents to find the interviews and texts.

Originally posted at meyouhoxtontoo.net

PEER consistently surprises by creating opportunities for artists to produce exceptional work in unexpected circumstances.
– Sir Nicholas Serota, Director, Tate

The Pier Trust was founded by Alex Sainsbury in 1997 and has been known as PEER since 1999. The gallery has been located on Hoxton Street since 2002. PEER is an independent organisation that commissions imaginative and ambitious arts projects by local, national and international artists in the heart of east London.

Martin Creed, Work No 203, Everything is Going to be Alright (detail) 1999. Commissioned by PEER

Dustin: Well can you talk a little bit about what informs the programming at PEER?

Gemma: At PEER we have a tendency of working with one artist on solo projects: you develop very close relationships with those artists. We’re genuinely dedicated to the practices that artists have and to give those artists an opportunity to work on projects that they haven’t had a chance to do before, or to take a risk. And I think it’s well known that when you’re invited by PEER you know its not just another show, its an opportunity to have a really fascinating dialogue and close engagement with Ingrid and myself. I think we absolutely strive to do the best in making the projects that exist on Hoxton Street fantastic, thought provoking and innovative. And they’re available there on the high street among all the other things that you see. Maybe it’s interesting to hear a little bit from Ingrid about the idea of the gallery in the expanded field in relation to that, and where PEER wants to position itself and go forward.

Ingrid: It’s just a sort of catch phrase. But I’ve just been thinking about the idea of the gallery in the expanded field, which is riffing on Rosalind Krauss’s notion of sculpture in the expanded field. I’m not trying to make any kind of grand theoretical claims. It’s not meant to be tricksy or clever. It’s just meant to be quite straightforward: which is how art can be part of daily life. Really it’s as simple as that, and how a lot of the smaller-scale galleries, that we’re often spoken of in the same breath, are quite hidden, they’re difficult places to find. And when you get there you’re often confronted by a door with a tiny little buzzer on it. And so this idea of art which is set back physically and psychologically from the street, it’s in this other space, and the idea of the gallery in the expanded field is that it is part of that space, it’s all one space in a way. How does the inside of the gallery impact the outside of the gallery? We are on a local high street with a very complex and interesting local community. Its got its own personality, if you like—multiple personalities. And so I think it is this idea of normalising something which is meant to be difficult and confrontational and I’m not saying that the work has to be dumbed down at all. I mean life is difficult so why can’t art be difficult.

Me You Hoxton Too Dustin O’Hara, Access All Areas, and PEER Participate,  2012

Dustin: Can you talk a little bit about previous projects and their relationship to the neighbourhood, or how PEER’s relationship to the neighbourhood has developed?

Ingrid: A number of the projects we’ve done have been off-site projects and that’s been a very important element of our program. The first one was by Martin Creed. This was followed by a joint application between the Shoreditch Trust and PEER to the Deutsche Bank’s ‘Art and Regeneration Award.’ And so the result of that was John Frankland’s Boulder Project. There are two boulders. There’s one in a park just up the road – Shoreditch Park– and another at Mabley Green. The one at Shoreditch Park weighs about 85 tonnes; it’s solid granite and it came out of a quarry in Cornwall. They are the result of a blast, they haven’t been manipulated by the artist’s hand.

John Frankland, Boulder, 2008. Commissioned by PEER and Shoreditch Trust

John Frankland, Boulder being picked up after blast, 2008

The Park Users Group wanted a fountain or something, but fountains get easily vandalised and trashed and they fall into disrepair, they’re very hard to keep up. So we had some meetings with that group and I had several conversations with John, and we proposed the Boulder Project. It is a very powerful feature of the park. Whether the granite boulder is interpreted by park users as a piece of sculpture or as a feature, is neither here nor there because ‘sculpture’ is just a word.  It’s something that people sort of gravitate towards. It looks totally ambiguous as to how it got there. It could have been a meteor that fell out of the sky, which is very unlikely.

John Frankland is a sculptor who uses a lot of ideas about material and scale in his work. He’s also a very avid rock climber. There’s a whole area of rock climbing called ‘bouldering’ and he’s one of many people who enjoy that. So we worked with local climbing clubs and with the schools and there’s a climbing club at the sports centre just at the edge of the park. So there’s a lot of hugely rich material that could be mined from this lump of granite that sits in the park. One of the local schools, the primary school on the edge of the park, did a fantastic project around the boulder with no consultation from PEER whatsoever. And so that’s only one of the off-site projects that we did.

Dustin: As someone who lives just down the street from the boulder, I see people climbing it all the time…

Ingrid: Yeah, it’s good; it’s got its own life now. 

Dustin: Yeah, the boulder is an interesting counterpoint to the common formal quality of public sculpture, which has little regard to the community surrounding it, and a week later becomes a monument to bird poop.

Ingrid: Yeah, they can be either ignored or loathed …invisible or just hated.

Gemma: There’s no announcement or any kind of card or plaque.

Dustin: The fact that it’s not identified as an artwork, as a sculpture, is one of its strengths.

Gemma: Yeah, it just allows it to exist and be taken as it is.

Bob and Roberta Smith, Shop Local, Dad’s hair salon sign, 2006. Commissioned by PEER

Dustin:  Absolutely. So can you talk a little bit more about the local shopkeepers sign project?

Ingrid: That’s by Bob & Roberta Smith. The signs reference a tradition of 19th, early 20th century sign painting. There are lots of ghost signs, as they’re known, around London and every city in the world. There’s a fantastic one on Kingsland Road near the Geffrye Museum about the Piano Manufacturers. So it was really about celebrating the sole traders and it was kind of a ‘two-fingers up’ to the large influx of big corporate shops that completely wipe out the little guys. The idea was kind of political with a very small ‘p.’ And again there’s this tremendous ambiguity about the work, there were five signs, for local shops that don’t exist anymore; ‘Ron’s Eel and Shellfish’ sign on the canal. ‘Ron’s Eel and Shellfish’ doesn’t exist anymore because Ron retired two summers ago. The sign is a souvenir, a record of the history of Hoxton Street. There’s ‘Dad’s Hairdressers’ on the side of Hoxton Works. And again, Mr Ellison, who is Dad, an Afro-Caribbean hairdresser, has retired so that shop doesn’t exist any longer. But I think that sign is safe because of its location on Hoxton Works. And then there’s ‘Hoxton Electro-vision’, which is on the side of the building here, next to the Post Office. None of the signs say “This is an artwork by Bob & Roberta Smith.” Bob & Roberta Smith have not signed them. And none of the signs say PEER. So they are completely on their own.

Dustin: So can you talk a bit about PEER Participate? How that fits into PEER, and it’s relationship to everything that we’ve been talking about in terms of the programming?

Gemma: A lot of smaller galleries now have a strand of education and outreach work. And PEER was doing that in a more fluid way. But in 2010 we were awarded support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to run a two-year pilot program, of education and out reach activities in the local community. The first two partners on board were St. Monica’s RC Primary School which is on Hoxton Square and Bridge Academy, which is a secondary school just on Laburnum Street. For the last two years artist Maria Amidu has been working with children from St. Monica’s, and we just recently held a showcase of work by 37 children from the After School Club called Dolphin Loves Disco.  And what’s really interesting is those children have visited PEER quite a few times. They’re very familiar with PEER and they walk past and are very confident about coming into the gallery, they know Ingrid and me. Often their parents are a bit more reluctant, but the kids pull them in.

Maria Amidu and St. Monica’s RC Primary School, Dolphin Loves Disco, 2012 Project commissioned by PEER Participate

Maria Amidu and St. Monica’s RC Primary School, Dolphin Loves Disco, 2012 Project commissioned by PEER Participate

And then this year with Bridge, we’ve been working with an artist called Emma Hart who’s actually worked with the teachers and not the students. The art department staff were interested in doing a project together to understand a little bit more about themselves and what they wanted to do, and what their mission should be as an art department. Emma’s been working on the idea of a manifesto, a series of manifesto statements that stresses the importance of art education, which is at threat because of the e-baccalaureate system. The manifestos will become is a series of six stickers that make bold statements about the importance of art education, which we’ll disseminate to local secondary schools around the area. There’s also been various other smaller groups that we have worked with, including an Over 50s Beginners Art Group just up the road, and students with learning disabilities based at Hackney Community College just across the road.

Emma Hart and art teachers from Bridge Academy, 2012. Project commissioned by PEER Participate

Dustin: So where do you see things going?

Gemma: All of the people we’ve worked with are keen to continue working in some way. We have to maintain those relationships, build on them and see what’s possible along the way.

Ingrid: Obviously the idea of the pilot is you test things out. And we’ve tested a bunch of stuff out. We’ve learnt a lot. It has to be led by what works and what’s successful and what people will get the most from.

Dustin: How do you determine what is successful? How are you assessing that?

Ingrid: When people say ‘How can we think of ways to carry on doing it?’ That’s good evidence of something being successful. St. Monica’s, who have had two years of an access to PEER, those kids may be people who wouldn’t normally have access to contemporary art. But because they feel quite confident about coming in here, or if they happen to see us on the street and say hello, I’d like to think that those kids will continue to have a sense of ease with PEER and with art. And as they grow older art might become a significant part of their creative learning, or enrich their life. I’m not saying that art should make you happy; I’m saying that art can make you think, just the way that listening to a piece of music, or reading a story can. There are sections of the local community which may not be otherwise inclined to go and see contemporary art. It was quite interesting with the kids taking bouldering classes during the Shoreditch Festival two-three summers ago when the boulders first went in. One Saturday afternoon, three of the boys who were signed up for the class didn’t show up, and so we got a bit annoyed about that because it’s not a right it’s a privilege to have your free bouldering classes on a Saturday afternoon, and to not turn up is a bit naughty. But then it transpired that these boys had taken themselves off to the Forest of Dean, or somewhere like that, because they’d heard that there were some boulders that could be climbed. That was amazing! Because they thought, “Well, we’ve done this one. Let’s go and find another one!” And that’s how you measure success, I think.

Access All Areas, is a theater company that works with people with severe learning disabilities. Formally under the name Rainbow Theater Company, the group has been working in Hoxton Hall since 1976. Access All Areas runs several ongoing parallel workshop groups that meet throughout the week. 

Train Me Up Workshop Group

Dustin: How did AAA get going? and what inspired you to work in the way that you do?

Nick: When I started we had no office, we were running it out of our bedrooms. We took over the group [Rainbow Theater Company] that was founded in 1976, for people with severe learning disabilities. We saw how amazing it was, but we wanted to develop it. So I came along as a workshop leader, and eventually took over as director of the charity and developed a business plan. We’ve secured some more regular funding and now we have our own office. So, I came along and took over, in a good way I hope. Then we employed Ciara, as a part time creative learning officer. So we’re growing slowly but surely.

Ciara: I was involved in theater from a very young age, but it was during university that I began to be disillusioned with theater for theater sake. I love theater, but there was something missing for me. And then one of the modules at university was titled ‘Applied Theater.’ It was about using drama, and the mechanisms of drama as a tool to bringing about learning and growth. And that just made perfect sense to me. So straight from university I went to work with community theater companies, working in hospitals, prisons, schools. So then I moved to London, and worked for an organization programming all of their performing arts projects, that was mixture of coordination and facilitation. And over those four years, I had done quite a lot of work with disabilities, and became very interested and fascinated by it. And then I saw that Rainbow was calling for volunteers. So I started to volunteer on Monday nights, after my normal work, and fell in love with it really. I think a more holistic approach to theater training can have wonderful effects, especially with people with learning disabilities. So then it lined up that Access All Areas was looking to take on another person, and now I work two to three days a week with the company.

Rainbow Theatre Company

Dustin: Can you talk about how your methodology as a theater company relates to social work?

Nick: So, we live in two worlds when we work in this field. We work through the arts, and we also work through day services, social services, and mainstream care. We’re creating art, but we are mindful of the groups we are working with, and the different contexts that people are living in. Some people live independently, but most people live in either care homes, or with their parents. Even at the age of 50 or 60, some of them are still living with their parents. With their parents aging, some of our members still haven’t learned any independent life skills at all. So we’re living and working in this double edged place, where we’re developing actors, for those and want to go on a pursue auditions, we’re here to help them move in that direction. And for other people it will be just about coming along each week, developing some social communication skills, but also giving some rest to their families and carers as well. So we’re doing many different things, and with new projects we can offer different options depending on their wanting to do.

Ciara: With this kind of work, you’re not just a theater maker, the pastoral role is equality as important. And keeping abreast with the public sector, state polices, working alongside local authorities, and other third sector organizations as well, to understand your place as an organization. I think especially with our project spinning yarn, with people with severe and multiple disabilities, we’ve had to work quite closely with Hackney council, to build a project that is built around the individual participants. That led me into a whole world of working along side social workers, duty care managers, care homes, care providers, and that’s something I never thought I would be getting into at all. In terms of You Me Hoxton Too, it was a research based project, that took us out into the community. We took our actors out away from the stage and into the neighborhood. Access All Areas does a wonderful job of creating a safe space for people with learning disabilities to explore and create amazing theater. But what was different with Me You Hoxton Too, we were giving them the tools to research out in their local communities, and staging conversations with local residents. It was something we had never done before, and I think it was really important for the integration of our members into the local community.

Dustin: Can you talk about the audience for Access All Areas, and how often Access All Areas puts on public shows?

Nick: We work with a lot of disability related organization, including a youth center, Hackney College, and a number of other groups. So, we have quite a sizable contingent of people coming to the shows. Of course parents, and carers, and as a company we manage a database of contacts of people interested in our shows. We rely a lot on volunteers for our performances. The shows run smoothly thanks to a lot of help from our volunteers. So we’re well supported in terms of volunteers and audiences. While we get strong reviews, often people will come up to us and give us feedback, “I’m not to sure about this, or that…” So our regular audience members are often quite honest, and if you can’t be honest with them who can you be?

A Very Unmerry Hardpenny Christmas

Dustin: Can you talk about the workshop methodology, your influences and inspiration, and how people might move between being an audience member to a performer and back again?

Nick: Well it really depends on the specific project. If it’s rainbow, that’s our Monday evening group, that meets every week for two and half hours. We use a mixture of drama, movement, and music, and we’ve started to use film now and as well. We’ll use those skills to explore different topics. For our show Walk a Mile in My Shoes, we explored the world war two as a topic. We explored the history of learning disability in a show called A Very Unmerry Hardpenny Christmas. And looking at how people with learning disabilities have only recently began coming out of institutionalization and major discrimination. So we have a mixture of techniques, no hard and fast solutions. We use physical theater, we never use texts, because a lot of our group can’t read. So all of our shows are devised by the group, and they’re all quite good at remembering and improvising things in the moment.

 Ciara: It’s a combined arts practice, the different disciplines don’t exist separately, they exist together as a way of exploring. And I think that works quite well with our members, because we work with people with an array of different learning needs. So employing an interdisciplinary approach we’re able to engage all of our members in different ways that suits them.

Nick: For those with profound and multiple learning disabilities, they have no form of verbal communication, and their range of expression is very limited compared to what we would perceive as a kind of performance in a traditional sense. We felt that creating a public performance wasn’t always the best for those participants. So we started Spinning Yarn for that purpose. So for the other groups, we now say want members that are conscious that they are performing. It’s therefore our job to find out how each person is then able to perform, and then we engage the performance around them. Each person is shown in the most positive light they can.

RE:bow rain Production

 Ciara: I guess there is something to be said about our methodology, in terms of where does the exploration end and the direction begin. It’s very much user led, devising process. Our members devise the material. But at what point do we have to step in and take on the role of director? Their’s no straight answer to that. It’s always quite an interesting question, we are working through.

Nick: I think that’s one of the main, ongoing arguments, we’re dealing with all the time in participant led performance. You have practitioners that are trained helping to facilitate an experience for a group of people, but bearing in mind we also have an audience. We have to create a space for material to develop, but as facilitators we need to be able to mold it in a way that is legible as a performance that has some kind of journey. Doing the Me You Hoxton Too project was a huge departure for us, leaving the confines of the theater and into the streets to engage with local residents. We are actively exploring different ways to develop our performers skills, and engage with the community we have been a part of since the mid 70s. There are people in our group that use to live in a hospital, and to go outside the hospital they had to get a specific pass, that you had to apply for like you were getting a visa and go to a foreign country. So I’m very conscious of how this area has a huge history of locking up people who don’t quite fit within societal norms. And although we try and do the opposite, we are generally confining people to the theater space, so going out into the streets was quite a nice departure for us, to perform on the streets that our members are from, and engage with a public that has never seen any of our shows.

Me You Hoxton Too

Dustin: You briefly mentioned it earlier, but can talk a bit more about how you help and represent those performers interested in pursuing their acting on a professionallevel?

Nick: Yeah, some of our performers really want to take their acting seriously, and they’ve been saying it since I met them. So we had an opportunity to go to the BBC and create show reels for a casting director. So we took a group that was interested in doing that. And since then we’ve had a quite a few different opportunities for our performers to audition, and have had great success on mainstream BBC television programs. And the performers are able to get a good payment for their acting skills. It’s been great, especially since there are no opportunities for anyone with a learning disability in normal drama schools to get professional training. So, not only are we trying to enable a marginalized group to develop their communication, social, and interpersonal skills, but we’re hoping to raise awareness and change public perceptions of learning disabilities. And while we’re doing that help some of our members to get paid work within the arts.

For more information about Access All Areas watch the video below, or visit their website www.access-all-areas-uk.org