Friday, 9 May 2014

the air / to dance in: an experimental community

A Winter Tree (series) by Kathleen Sim0n, at Text Festival 4

The fourth international Text Festival in Bury is well underway, pioneering a trail for people who use language to make art - be they artists, poets, performers, musicians. What can sometimes be overlooked, however, is the experimental approach that Festival Director Tony Trehy has also taken in working with communities, especially marginalised people. 

Rather than opt for superficial community engagement with its quick fix of good PR, the Festival builds on long involvement with arts organisations, nurturing more meaningful projects that are also deep-rooted in the avant-garde. One such practitioner is Ruth Jones, whose extraordinary dance work with older people is both challenging and uplifting.

During our decade-long partnership with the Festival, arthur+martha have collaborated with hundreds of disenfranchised people in Bury and beyond - and shared their work. Homeless people, school pupils in danger of exclusion, pupils with literacy problems and older people with dementia have all been welcomed in the Festival exhibition programme.

Bury school pupils with literacy problems made The Grin Variations an animated homage to the great British avant-garde poet Bob Cobbing, in tandem with pupils from the International School in Den Hague. By treating poems as visuals as well as words, we discovered ways into self-expression for some young people who normally struggle to write. (Outside the Cobbing sessions, some of them refused to even pick up a pen.)

A smile four months crying postcard by anonymous homeless participant at Text Festival 3 in 2011. Postcards were fixed to vehicles to underscore their makers' transient lives. Here the 'tears' of the postcard are held in place by a windscreen wiper.

In 2011, a hundred postcards made by homeless people were exhibited at the Festival exhibition a map of you. Curated by Phil Davenport, the show placed their work alongside international artists and poets to start a dialogue that is still ongoing. The postcards were also made as animations on the BBC Big Screens in Liverpool and Manchester to an estimated passerby audience of over 1 million, helping to combat hate crime against homeless people. One of the crucial elements of this project was that it was based on experimental approaches to poetry/art, connecting to the spirit of the Text Festival - and again liberating many participants who would normally struggle to write. Artist Rainer Ganahl and poets Steve Giasson, Scott Thurston and Geof Huth all helped, making work in response to encounters with homeless people.

Front cover of TWEET FROM ENGELS, a poem made from tweets by local homeless people. Canadian poet Steve Giasson helped edit the book and designed it as part of a collaboration organised through the Text Festival. 

More recently, Bury Art Museum (home of the Text Festival) has helped support the continuing arthur+martha dementia art project Spaghetti Maze. Again, work with this particular community has been inspired by the example of many experimenters, especially poet Lynn Hejinian. By allowing in more fluid approaches to what makes a poem, a narrative, or an artwork, we have worked with people with a dementia diagnosis trying to construct life stories in their own personal language, tracing the shapes of their logic and needs. Two of the pieces from these sessions in Pinfold Lane dementia care centre can be seen at the exhibition Phil has curated for current Text Festival exhibition The Dark Would Volume 3, while the exhibition space has been soundtracked by local schoolchildren attempting to make birdsong.

A Winter Tree (series) by Ivy at Pinfold Lane dementia care centre, Bury.  This free variant on a family tree is part of The Dark Would Volume 3 exhibition currently showing at Text Festival 4. 

Perhaps our connection with the Festival runs deeper than the usual sorts of Community Engagement that arts institutions encourage, because the Text Festival is itself a community of outsiders. Sometimes sharing and sometimes fighting, like any community, they're trying to re-make art - and therefore re-imagine what it is to be people - in the whirligig of the 21st century. 

Entering The Dark Would Volume 3,  Kath's A Winter Tree is top left, rear wall. 

Text Festival 4 is at Bury Art Museum and Sculpture Centre until 9 July, opening times 10am-5pm Tues-Sat. For more information go to: 

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