Tea and biscuits, delight and awe

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Posted by Artistic Director Arti Prashar on November 10, 2016

Here's the transcript of Arti's provocation, given to the Inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations at their meeting on 9 November 2016.

The Inquiry is a project initiated by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation:

'When I was asked if I would present a provocation, I wasn't  sure if I had a provocation in me. To tell the truth it frightened the life out of me. Why? Because just the word 'civic' sends my head in a spin, as I don't know what it means, or indeed what it means to me. 

So already I feel at a disadvantage as I am having to negotiate someone else's language in order to have this debate. 

I feel like I did when I came to Britain in the late 60s; knowing no English, trying to make sense of strange sounds and odd spelling. 

The word civic sounds very old, very Victorian, and not very 2016. 

It reminds me of the other, of privilege, of a system that feels alien. 

At present I don't have alternatives to the word civic, but hope some will appear as a part of this research. 

My sensibility as a participatory artist  - and I can only speak as a participatory artist, as that's what I am - community artist, activist, animateur  -  is to be emotional, dramatic, and sensitive. To respond with creativity, understanding and humanity to complex emotional, environmental, psychological, financial situations that we are faced with. 

And I choose to do my 'art thing' with many hard to reach people and communities. For some in those communities it's about telling their stories and having them validated, for others it's about a shared moment of play and joy, for others it's about connecting with other people, for some it's about finding the artist in them, it's about being reassured, about being held, touched, it's about tea and biscuits, delight and awe. 

So where do my morals, my values sit in all this? I believe in the honesty and integrity of people, and I believe if you treat people in this way they respond back in the same way. I can do projects on a nod or handshake. 

Trust plays a huge part in what I do. I am happy to enable and empower voices even though it may offend. 

I so value living in a nation that still has a functioning democracy, that still enables freedom of speech and expression, that is multi-faith, that still is able to welcome many people from different backgrounds and cultures. 

However I am very aware that as an artist that is often funded by the public purse, my 'art' on the surface is often being driven by someone else's agenda. Sometimes it's very hard to meet the agenda. Especially when it devalues process over product.  

I am a participatory artist that works at the coal face, and sees changing needs first hand; many surface painfully, and so I seek to affect change for the better. 

In my experience, needs have not surfaced through statistical data, science or formula. They have surfaced by simply connecting with people through an arts project, talking with them, creating with, laughing and crying with them. Spending many months and years with them. Building a community. Building their life, social, and creative skills. Attending funerals, attending social care meetings, challenging transport systems... making them a cup of tea with biscuits. Watching them bake cakes for us, advocate for us, party with us...

The needs surface when an artist shows, shares, experiences compassion and humanity. When the artist takes time to reach out, spending hours on the phone talking to a participant, welcoming them into the office, sharing our thoughts and decisions, asking them for their thoughts and opinions. 

Including them in everyday decisions and life of an arts project, or arts company. I will also say that most participatory artists and participatory arts organisations are in some way involved in the lives of their participants. 

If that's being civic-minded then that's what I do.'