Like a softly spoken, middle-aged version of the famous scene from Fight Club, I explain, ‘What is said in the room, shared in this group, stays in here.’ That message is repeated weekly during our sessions with people who have experienced homelessness, when things get open and honest - and often they do. It marks the success of the sessions that people can talk about their lifestyles, health conditions, history, but these are big, difficult, often raw, deep-seated things, that nobody wants to have to deal with, let alone live with. Then there are the issues of drink and drugs, mental health and learning difficulties that compound it all, or are the results of unresolved problems. But are the things we share when we are under the influence of drink or drugs are they the same as when we are straight? Or if we are in the turbulence of a health condition at what point do we lose capacity to make decisions, do 'they' have the mental capacity to sign 'their' name on the artwork/poem? And have it published? These are the uncomfortable discussions we have with carers of people of dementia for example.
As the artist/facilitators, with journalistic instincts, there is a big push and pull to our sessions. It's what's happening right now with our current project 'Armour'. When individuals start to reveal a little about themselves for instance talking about surviving abuse (tragically a common thread amongst homeless people) or their mental health, it often appears they are experiencing release, but it can be a painful one. Like throwing-up the contents of your stomach, it's uncomfortable, but there is relief.
During a recent session one of our group shared, there was a sense of urgency in the talk, we all supported in our ways, much of what was shared obviously hit a chord with others. I'm talking about Peer Mentoring at its best, that support and learning you get from people who have found ways to survive, found their ways through difficult circumstances. I can help, but only help in certain ways, (it takes a village…) so we all listened, we tried to empathise - although some things are just so out of your experience you just can only imagine - and then I brought us back to art, to making. And the atmosphere changed again. And our minds and bodies were distracted, refocused.
|artwork from Michael from the project Armour|
Phil and I have often come back to the subject of ethics over the years. We have worked with academics who can hardly get things off the ground, being strangled in the red tape of ethical approval. As artists not tied to an education establishment, we can be much lighter on our feet, work and take advice from the organisations that are hosting our sessions, and most importantly, take advice and the lead from the people we are working with. I think we get it right most of the time. If we have any doubts we keep art, poetry and interviews anonymous, enabling a voice to be heard, but not identified.
But back to that push and pull of being an artist/writer/storyteller. There are times when we listen to someone telling their stor,y when it's getting uncomfortable, the story is getting dark, difficult, in truth. As the audience, these are the stories we are waiting for, the ones to be re-told, the ones with the power. And generally, the person who is telling the story, is keen to tell. And we try never to push, pick or prod. But it does make me feel uncomfortable, why do we want to hear about the extremes in life? Is it the same drives as wanting to watch a scary film? Taking us to the edge? Phil and I have been working with marginalised, often vulnerable people for many years now, we certainly certainly don't have all the answers, only continual questions. Including questions for ourselves.