Making of Us film

A short film made during the Making of Us development programme, which I was part of at the Turnpike Gallery in Leigh. Artist Jamie-Lee Wainman and I led eight socially engaged workshops with neurodiverse young people at Ashcroft School in Cheadle, as part of this 2022 programme.

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Making of Us reflections – session #8

Today was our eighth and final session at Ashcroft School for the Making of Us. I was looking forward to the end of this project – not because I haven’t enjoyed it but because I’m happy to be moving forwards and building on everything I’ve learned. I applied for the Making of Us pretty blindly, it has to be said – I saw the opportunity advertised and didn’t think too deeply about what it could all mean for me. I was looking for new challenges and directions at the time, as I was looking to move on from journalism, and this presented itself, so it all happened quite organically. A lot of things have happened quite serendipitously during my career, this one included. I’ve learned loads, and a lot of what I learned I couldn’t have foreseen – which I suppose is the best kind of learning. I’ve learned I enjoy collaboration and I’ve learned to let go as a facilitator and to try new activities that are also unknown to me. Previously I probably would have felt I need to have expertise in something before passing it on to a group.

As I’ve previously expressed on here, we’ve had quite a few ups and downs and twists and turns during the lifetime of this project, as to be expected. We’ve had to navigate our relationship with the partner setting, including learning to be quite firm about our needs where necessary. I’ve personally had to learn a lot from the young people about their needs, which are variable within the group and across the sessions themselves. Today we repeated our cyanotype session, which we did a few weeks ago and which proved quite successful then.

There’s something about this process which suited the group – I think because you see a result quite fast and there are lots of different steps. This time we had three young people in our session, two of whom were present last time. They went straight into it like a couple of pros, and focused really well for the entirety of the session. The third young person also got very into it once her initial mood had dissipated. The group made cards/images for people the love, since today is Valentines Day. We couldn’t really have asked for it to go any better and I think we left the space feeling quite positive.

Making of Us reflections – sessions #7

It was our penultimate session at Ashcroft School for the Making of Us this week. The workshop had its high points but didn’t entirely go as planned. Only two of our five young people were present – one appears to have dropped out altogether, another was meant to be there but has other things going on which are putting her in the wrong headspace, and the fifth person had gone home ill. Not the greatest of starts, compounded by their lack of enthusiasm for some of what we were proposing… it can often feel like pushing a boulder up a rock during these sessions, but it didn’t really get to us this time. We get it now.

We started with a game – Pictionary cards – where you use cards to mime out a word and other people guess. The two participants were very reluctant to get involved but with a bit of pushing from their teachers, they eventually got into it and even helped act out one or two words. Turning it into a competition involving a timer seemed to help with this – this was an inspired bit of knowledge from Jamie, my partner facilitator, who herself has ADHD so understands some of the young people’s issues. She says introducing competition to things helps to get her attention fixed on a task. Good tip.

The creative exercise this week involved Tengrams – making images using pre-cut coloured shapes, in this case different kinds of triangles. The aim was to build on last week’s cyanotype session, which saw us make a backdrop of the sea. We wanted to make images of fish and other sea creatures – the triangle idea came from school, which has recently covered triangles in maths. This exercise, it has to be said, didn’t really light anyone’s fire. The two young people were much more restless than the previous week – they both had to go for a little walk during the session (this is written into lots of people’s education plans at the school but it was significant that it wasn’t necessary during the cyanotype workshop, as they were so engaged in what they were doing). Both participant fed back afterwards that they found this activity boring – and one, who has sensory needs, really didn’t like using the glue due to it being sticky.

The final activity was a little game (chin chin, involving thumbs), which went a bit better. The person who came last won this time around, which was good. Overall it was a bit of a mixed bag as a session – there were moments where they engaged and others where they didn’t. Next week we’re back to cyanotype, since they enjoyed it so much last time. I’m glad to be reaching the end of these sessions and to move onto something new but I’ve gained so much more than I expected to during this process. I knew I’d benefit from the experience planning and delivering workshops but I’ve also learned I love collaborating with other artists, I’ve learned how to set boundaries with partners and speak up when required and I’ve learned to be less controlling and more responsive to what groups are into. I’m very grateful to have had this opportunity at this stage in my work.

 

Making of Us reflections – session #6

Today we delivered our sixth of eight workshops at Ashcroft School in Cheadle, as part of our involvement in the Making of Us, a professional development programme for socially engaged artists. We decided to experiment with cyanotype – something I’ve dabbled with a few times this year but never leading a group (other than my own kids). Cyanotype can be quite an open thing so in discussion with the school, we decided to theme our session around the idea of making a cross section of the sea. We made six A4 panels – with the three students who were present today each working together with an adult. The aim was to all create something which could then be put together into a bigger piece – so working both collaboratively and individually. This approach seems to work quite well with the participants.

We started our project with five young people but this is a challenging group for a variety of reasons and the numbers have waxed and waned throughout. Some pupils have been absent some weeks, while others have walked out partway through our sessions or simply refused to walk in at the start. Today I thought a few were about to bolt as I was explaining how cyanotype works – it’s quite dry and a bit much to take in – but we pulled it back when we did a demonstration sheet. From that point it seemed to get easier – one group member, who finds it difficult to sit and focus for long periods of time, managed to stay present and engaged for 80 minutes, which is quite an achievement. Pre-planning what we wanted to make on regular paper was a great idea, as we could then simply transfer the constituent parts to the cyanotype sheet before getting the UV torches out.  We both came away from the session feeling very positive and excited for how we can build on this over the coming two sessions.

Making of Us reflections – session #5

A lot has happened in two weeks on the Making of Us project we are running at the Together Trust.

This is a challenging environment and there have been times when we as artists have felt quite out of our depth and unsure of how best to offer the young people in our group an experience that is interesting and engaging. In our last session, a fortnight ago, we tried to use reflective exercises to discern what they wanted to do more of but the results were so varied between the group (and those present so few in number) that for me at least this only muddied the water more, and left me feeling quite deflated. Someone wanted to do more collaging for example, while others definitely didn’t.

While being participant-led is obviously something worthy to aim for, the reality can be messy when those participants have very different opinions, likes and dislikes.

We communicated to the school that we would benefit from more support and they have risen to the challenge – yesterday’s session felt much better all round. We have started sending them visual guides to what our next session will entail and communication in both directions has been strengthened. We had a face-to-face debrief after our session yesterday, which was really valuable – this is the first time we’ve done that (we’ve previously asked for feedback by email) but it was definitely much better. Now to plan our next few sessions – we have three left, Covid-permitting.

Our session yesterday involved lots of games – the name game (famous person name on your forehead) and a game where you guess how many thumbs people will hold up. The creative activity was led by Jamie, we wrote down feelings and worries from our heads on post-it notes and then scribbled them up and tore or shredded the paper. Then wrote things on blue paper towels and, once outside, wet these and threw them at a coloured target Jamie had made. We attracted a lot of attention from other students at the school – which we had been warned about by staff – and not all our three participants fully engaged. One got very into it but the two girls had one try, missed the target and wouldn’t do it again.

I keep trying to remind myself not to take these things personally when an activity or session doesn’t hit the mark with everyone involved – I am learning to lower my expectations and see it as a win if all of the young people present engage with something during our time there. They have different needs and energy levels and can be up and down at different points during our sessions, but all got involved in the game-playing part of the session. And – as our Making of Us mentor pointed out to us – having an element of choice over whether to be involved in a particular activity is an important part of this process. They can be an audience member and still be participating, but in a different way – as long as they aren’t disrupting it. It doesn’t come easily to me to think like this as I am inclined to be output-focussed but I am trying to keep this in mind.

There’s a lot to learn and think about during this practical side of the programme. About working with a partner setting and developing positive relationships; working with challenging participants; working with an artistic collaborator; about being process-driven not output-focussed; about trying new things ourselves as practitioners (stepping out of our own comfort zones just as we are asking the participants to do); about having boundaries and recognising and expressing our needs; about my own temperament and what kinds of projects and participants would and wouldn’t suit me, going forward.

 

 

 

Reflections at the halfway point – the Making of Us

 

Yesterday was session 4 out of 8 workshops we are delivering for Ashcroft School in Cheadle, as part of our involvement in the Making of Us programme. So we’re now halfway through, an apt point to do some reflection – with the young people and between ourselves as facilitators.

This session should have taken place during the last week of the Autumn term but Covid enforced a delay. I think this had an impact on how it went and where we’re at more generally. It’s now around a month since we saw the group and this was only their third day back at school. They didn’t seem enthused.

Our session was structured around reflection – casting our minds back to what we’d done in sessions 1-3 and looking forward to possible activities for the remaining four weeks. Activities so far have been a photo walk with disposable cameras, followed by collaging using the prints from those cameras. We have also done light painting and Jamie-Lee made lithophanes/3D prints out of the group’s collages – which they saw for the first time yesterday and could take home to keep.

We looked at the prints from light painting and gave out the lithophanes to the members of the group who were present (two were not there). We then played a game Jamie had come up with to make the reflective process more fun – it involved an elastic band attached to four strings. Four people had to work together to control the band and to pick up paper cups. Under the cups were post-it notes with prompts. We hoped everyone would contribute their thoughts and help us shape the rest of the project.

Of course there’s theory and there’s practice, and things do not always work out how you hope. The game was good fun and the group seemed to enjoy it. A few thoughts came out of it but it felt like getting blood out of a stone at times. Group members are not the most forthcoming with their thoughts and at times it felt like we and the teacher were in danger of putting words in their mouths, which is not what we wanted to happen. But what to do when a young person shrugs and says ‘I dunno’ to everything? It’s a really tricky one.

The energy levels in our group fluctuate quite wildly during our 90 minute sessions. Someone can start off quite engaged and apparently into it and then five minutes later they’ve left the room, never to return. Some participants stay but fold into themselves and stop engaging. They make themselves small. This is a challenge for us as facilitators – I am not someone who is very experienced (or naturally very good) with teenagers – let alone those with additional needs. It all gave me a lot of food for thought.

How to ensure we are designing our sessions in a way which works for these participants? Reflection is great and important but I came away feeling somewhat at sea, since the activities that some people had enjoyed were those which others had not enjoyed at all. Which direction to go in next?

This is all something we are now working on and we have some ideas, some of which we want to try for ourselves while we have this chance and others we are designing especially for them.

But some other points struck me as relevant. One weakness for how it went is that we’ve had a long break, worsened by Covid forcing us to postpone our last session. That has broken the flow which we’d built up so far. One participant who had got really involved in the first three sessions and seemed to get a lot out of it – particularly the last workshop on light painting – has now decided he wants to drop it altogether, which is a shame. I wonder if that would have happened if we’d managed to do one long uninterrupted block of sessions.

This is not to say it’s all negative. We have had some genuine moments where it feels like we are connecting with the young people in our group and I can see they are enjoying aspects of what we’re doing. It’s an interesting and challenging journey to walk the path of meeting their needs in a genuine way, given the limitations of the small and unpredictable spaces we are being given to work with and all the other external dramas which can be happening around us at the school.

Next week we plan to do something more active which involves an acceptable level of mess – and to introduce the incentive of earning sweets or chocolate for engaging in our sessions. Hopefully this will make it feel less like ‘school’ and more like something fun and creative that they are happy to be part of. Fingers crossed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Making of Us, session 3

Yesterday’s third session of the Making of Us was another thought-provoking one. The highlight was a few hours spent with Simon Ruding, director of TIPP, which started life as a participatory theatre organisation but now works across the arts. Most of their participants have lived experience of the criminal justice system or engage in behaviour which puts them at risk of criminalisation. They work in prisons and with probation teams, in youth justice settings and the like. Early on, Simon commented that when he hears groups being described as being “unreachable” he becomes determined to put the work in and engage with them. This resonated with me, as I’m similarly attracted to working in this space.

Simon’s session was focused on dealing with challenging behaviours, but what he did was help us look at the issue from a different perspective. Namely trying to recognise that participant behaviour which we may struggle with is coming from a logical place when viewed from their perspective. What I came away with is the need for radical acceptance of whatever those people are experiencing and the fact that the only factor we can change within this situation is our own response to whatever they do or say. “Changing the schema” as Simon put it (ie the pattern or expected response). It’s going to come down to developing a thick skin and developing some techniques and approaches which may help in tense or challenging situations.

The CPD sessions that we’re currently taking part of are building  up to the 10 participant artists being put in pairs to plan and run a series of co-designed workshops. These will involve participants who are young adults with additional needs of various kinds, and will be run with partner organisations.

I have some anxiety around the idea of facilitating workshops but actually I realised in yesterday’s session that this is very much tied to my rather controlling nature and leaving things to chance and depending on other people – plus the fear of the unknown. I think a lot of my personal anxiety comes from my own insecurities about my right to be in this space and to even call myself an artist (this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately – I have a lot of baggage around that word because I’m untrained). But I know intellectually that this really makes very little sense – I’ve talked about my own work a lot and am very confident doing so in public. What was reassuring in a perverse way was that many of my concerns are shared by other participants – including those who already do some facilitation. Even Simon said he still has some anxieties around running sessions, despite having done it for 25 years.

I need to give this more thought so I can process some of these feelings and try to unpick them further…..

The Making of Us, session 2

Yesterday was the second session of the Making of Us, a professional development programme I’m currently part of at the Turnpike in Leigh, along with eight other artists from different backgrounds. The day involved making bread and taking part in a walk along the canal with artist Niki Colclough, which was rather lovely.

We’ve been thinking about collaboration, our experiences of it and the different forms it can take – with partner organisations, other artists and of course project participants. It’s been interesting talking to people who have come from different disciplines – the group includes a poet, a ceramicist, someone who uses 3D printing and several who have a very interdisciplinary practice.

My own experience of collaboration is a bit mixed. As a freelancer for 15 years now I’ve become a lone wolf on a professional level – I tend to work on self-generated and self-funded photo and multimedia projects in which I do everything: the research, finding of participants, engagement, photography, interviews, audio, multimedia production, book/zine design and dissemination. I am good at a few of these things, adequate at others and really poor at some (dissemination and marketing in particular!) I don’t think the lone wolf model is one to aspire to – but it suits a control freak like me, especially one with such limited funding for work.

I have limited experience at collaborating with institutions (outside of commissioning editors from magazines etc). This is starting to change a little this year, thanks to a few micro commissions – and will hopefully continue to do so. I have never collaborated with another artist so that is all wonderfully new for me.

However, I do feel I have something to contribute when it comes to experience collaborating with project participants. Not in a formalised workshop setting but in a more organic sense. When I worked with Roma families in 2011-2014, I was quite conscious about making the work as collaborative as I could as a way to make the power dynamic less glaring (although it still existed of course… after all, there’s no getting away from the fact I’m a white middle-class media professional holding a massive camera). I worked with families for extended periods of time (years); asked participants to take photos of their daily lives; invited them to write or speak about images and family album photos and used photo elicitation as a method to generate texts (ie interviewing with images – more on this here, along with some examples).

They also got to see and approve photos before they were used in books and exhibitions. All the accompanying words were theirs. It wasn’t a perfect project, obviously. But I am confident they felt included and I know they didn’t feel exploited because we are all still in touch. I consider this a socially engaged body of work but this way of working is a spectrum and I was definitely still in the driving seat – the artistic vision and final photos were all mine. I once asked Ramona to come up with an alternative edit of my photos, which was quite different to mine, as you would expect (You can see this over here)

It was a fun experiment but I wasn’t ready to cede that kind of power – I was (and still am) in thrall to the idea of making aesthetically pleasing photos and to a degree to the ego-centric stereotype of the documentary photographer – but in a different setting and a different kind of project I would challenge myself to let go of this.

In preparation for yesterday’s session we were asked to read the article Power Up and to make notes. These are the points which leapt out at me in the reading and session itself:

  • We should be responsive to the needs and wants of communities with which we are working – it’s about agency and empowerment
  • Reflection on work is crucial
  • Cultural capital can reinforce inequalities – how do we make sure we value the cultural capital of participants
  • We need to consider our positionality, privilege and subjectivity and how these play into decision making.
  • Beware of gatekeeping – we need to enable co-design of projects. Not just give people access to existing programmes. They need to be genuinely and equally invited.
  • Consider where power lies – is this just about boxticking? Who sets the parameters and guidelines and makes the final decisions?
  • Look out for cultural colonialism (ie asymmetrical exchange)
  • Listen and reflect what you learn
  • “Collaboration is often characterised by a degree of paternalism”
  • Collaborator or participant?
  • There’s a stereotype of socially engaged artists ‘doing good’ or ‘helping people’ – this can be paternalistic.