Ahead of their Imagine! event 23rd March, Sheelagh Colclough from the peer led group P³ shares some thoughts.

P³ (Peer Professional Practice) is a loose grouping of people initially formed out of a research project looking at some of the different thinking behind participatory arts, drawing on people’s lived experiences locally and further afield. We are not constituted, we have day jobs in different areas of the arts and all the other usual demands on our time like everyone else, but we have been meeting around virtual kitchen tables sharing our views and thinking about possible next steps. We’d like to thank Imagine Belfast for the opportunity to hopefully broaden our discussion through this event and perhaps clarify or develop some further action. We’ll be posing some questions, offering some of our thoughts and then inviting discussion.

Through our own work in different areas including health, culture, education, and development we are aware that even the terms used to describe this kind of work aren’t completely clear or even agreed on by everybody. So first we will be asking some questions about how arts projects are described and understood; participation, collaboration, outreach, community development and so on. Is it just language or is there more to it? Is it to do with the status of those involved and the value given to their input? It usually takes a lot of time and effort to organise and take part in a project but there usually is a hierarchy of roles, is that inevitable or desirable and what are the ways that those positions could be better understood?

We also want to acknowledge some of the reasons that people do want to participate and work together, to inspire each other and create something that doesn’t exist yet, identifying what we think are examples of positive participatory arts practices, noting the importance of producing over consuming, and expressing unique ideas. Northern Ireland in particular has a rich history of people coming together to tell their own stories often serving to show a much more complicated picture than many official accounts or spokespeople might suggest. How important is it then to hold on to those ideals of ownership and authorship in this work? After more than 30 years of arts and cultural participation here is it time those involved are supported to have more of a say about commissioning and evaluation for example and not only content?

Something that always comes up with participatory arts projects is funding, for those working in the sector it’s usually about a lack of public money, which is true, as a tiny proportion of our block grant goes to the organisations that do this work. Perhaps partly due to this pressure we seem to have painted ourselves into a corner about who and what public money for participatory arts gets spent on, with deprivation indices frequently used in funding applications. Is there too much baggage here? Are we stuck in a peace and reconciliation loop, where people are labelled and understood as ‘targets’ to be ‘reached’? What effect does that have on the nature of this work? Why is outreach not called inreach? If cultural participation was understood as a right and not something that is offered up as desired how might that change how things are done?

What are the aspirations for participation then? There are probably many completing answers. Lockdown has shown us that there is a real appetite for connection and being involved in making arts and culture is an effective way to do that. Are there ways to harness people’s desire to connect, while also improving their communities and supporting each other, that participation can help facilitate? Do projects always have to have the same kinds of shapes, time frames and outcomes? Could experienced and interested participants help develop more ambitious ways of working? What do people really want to pour their time and energy into? Maybe sometimes an actual ‘art’ output is only a small part of a bigger, more future orientated picture.

If you are interested in hearing and or contributing to any of these ideas or sharing any others we would love you to join us at the Black Box, Wednesday 23rd March, 8pm. All welcome.

This event has been put together by Peer Professional Practice (P³) a group made up of people who are interested in discussing, critiquing and developing participatory (arts) practices in Northern Ireland. Currently our members are Ciara O’Malley, Gwen Stevenson, Heather Floyd, Jacqui Wylie and Sheelagh Colclough.

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