Saturday, 4 June 2011

conclusions drawn from being alive

The most moving session I've witnessed at Four Acre was with one man. During the course of reflection and reminiscence, he travelled through his whole life. At first, his summary of it was dismissive. 'Mundane job, mundane job, mundane job.' His manner was brittle and defensive. He was shut away in his house and within himself.

In the course of talking, his world began to unfurl. He remembered the adventures he'd happily undertaken, the crazy-seeming risks. He recollected his encounters not only with other people on his global travels, but also the natural world, the landscapes, the wild edges of the earth. I made notes of his experience and read them back to him, reaffirming the richness of his past. I asked him to make a piece of writing that reflected on his experiences. He was too self-conscious to write or draw in front of us, so we left him with pen and paper.

For our second session, he had written a little philosophical rumination; the conclusions he'd drawn from being alive. He had also decided to join an artgroup. He was also less guarded. Little chinks had opened in his armour and through them escaped some hints of his old bravery. Because we had the opportunity to work one-to-one with this man, a remarkable thing occurred. We were privileged enough to be part of a rare moment - when someone looks at themselves and changes as a result of that act of reflection.

Of course my account is subjective. How can we really know what happens in another person's head, or heart? But something about the quality of that particular afternoon makes me believe my 6th sense. The fact that I can see his face before me in my minds eye as I write, can recall the conversation, tells me how deeply it affected me.

How do you measure human engagement? Behind every publicly-funded art project there's a tussle going on between art and numbers. How deeply engaged are the participants, versus how many participants? How much does it cost versus how much art is in the art? This is public money and as many of the public as possible should benefit. But if the engagement is shallow, then what's the point?

arthur+martha usually works with groups: being in a group is often a great encourager and pleasure for people. The social dynamic becomes part of the texture of the art. However, numbers are not the whole story. The strength of a piece of art is the intensity of its vision and the conclusions it draws. Neither the personal experiences nor the power of the artwork can be number-crunched - they need another kind of accounting.

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