UNION.


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SUNDAY 7 APRIL 2019
Sunday felt like a bit of a blur? The focus of the day was reflecting on who we are as artist-activists (Artivists) and what we need to get to where we want to be. Back at Artlink in the morning, and we spent some time going over and refining the UNION agreements. During that day, we also did an exercise exploring where we sit on the poles of:

Past ——————- Future
Individual ————- Collective
Inner —————— Outer
Compliant ————– Rebellious

I found this exercise quite difficult as different parts of my practice can sit on opposing poles. For example, the work I make for ME (physical art-making) is individual, inner, in the present, rebellious… where the stuff I like to do with people (e.g. Fish, Recovery College, workshops etc) is generally future-orientated, collective and outward looking. Which is fine, of course, but it was difficult to plonk yourself along a line when your practice is so varied.

Now this is where I have written a whole in-depth bit of reflective text but have decided that it’s maybe more suitable for my journal instead of on here – the key points though were that I have become much more risk-averse in recent years (possibly also related to my mental well-being) and that that is something I’m already working on. I seemed to fixate on that point during group work (don’t forget, I was in a hypercritical-of-self negative state) which may have suggested a nature not actually reflective of myself. I’m superorganised but I’m not controlling or unbearably pedantic!

With these thoughts and ideas in mind, we did an activity of working out what we had to offer and what it was we needed:

3 things I have to offer:

  • Ideas and advice on direction/connections/opportunities
  • Perspective, experience and viewpoints relating to NHS, setting up a business, mental health
  • Support regarding new ways of looking at things, such as situations, art crits, creative blocks etc

1 thing I need:

  • Loosening up and exposure to new experiences

Still think I need that one thing. I do suffer from stress and when I’m in a low patch I can get much worse. And I tend to isolate myself. It’s just what depression does. I meditate and my interests (arting, ukulele, reading, writing, gaming etc) chill me out but they’re quite internal activities. I could still do with some more active, ‘external’ spontaneous loosening. I exist very much in my own head – which is a tendency of an overthinker. It’s an existing quest of mine to live in the moment but have things to look forward to. Which includes new experiences. Always. I’ve been fortunate to experience lots of pretty incredible things in my life – I’ll show you my Life List sometime. But the frequency has slowed down in the last 5 years or so (to be fair, a big part of that relates to finances) so that needs to change – but booking a random trip to India has already shook it up a bit!

After making plans to support one another with various things, we were asked to make an image – a selfportrait as an Artivist. In mine, there was something about knowledge and growth and developing myself into a tool for change:

Chris asked us about creating a term for ourselves that summed up ourselves as an Artivist – his was cool: Mystic Revolutionary. In my irrational mindset however, I found this difficult as I kept going straight for negative adjectives and verbs. I have been thinking on this since though, and the one I have sort of settled on is: Restless Conspirator. Restless because I can’t stay still, I have to always move forward, be proactive, improve the situation (and because I exist on a cocktail of anxiety and frustration!)… and Conspirator because I notice that I get people onside before plotting/collaborating with them to think up better ways of doing things, and then often lead by example in tactfully shaking the boat a bit. I’m not naturally a rule breaker but I am one for challenging the status quo. I think my process involves seeking to change hearts and minds with compassion, reason and lived experience before proving my point with direct, pacifist, creative and effective demonstrations of my argument. As opposed to the anarchic distruptor that most people probably picture when thinking of ‘activist’.

I could do with being a little more anarchic, to be fair . But the term ‘anarchy’ seems to no longer simply mean ‘leaderlessness’ but instead implies anger at any authority, which when stirred by the excitement of protest, can lead to unnecessarily violence But this anger runs the risk of pissing people off and harming your cause if not thought through and/or executed appropriately. How can you make change if you piss off everyone and get the backs up of the people you’re trying to win over? I’ve seen too many worthwhile causes and campaigns get backlash and lose support because of this, or through the invitation of negative spin. Also, in my experience, once walls are built and opinions formed, it is all the harder to bring back down as no-one likes to admit they’re wrong. I’m all for disruption (I goad people on Twitter occasionally – what a rebel) but I think in my day-to-day I hold a bit more of a Sun Tzo approach to activism.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
“Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”
“To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.”

Sun Tzo. What a baws. It was a really interesting way to reflect on the self as an Artivist, although it raised more questions than answered them!

There were things in the Sunday outline that would have been really helpful to have had the time to explore, especially in the mind I was in. About self-care, identifying the next ‘threshold’ in our journeys and exploring the fear and doubt about moving forward. Perhaps that was explored in some ways through the sharing of skills and ideas and thinking about what we needed support with. Dunno!

The end of the day saw us planning the next weekend, which would be in July. Would appear to be in Manchester. After that Fri/Sat/Sun there, I will be travelling to London on the Sunday night to start my fortnight-long Royal Drawing School Summer Programme, which is being funded through my Emergence Bursary. I’m gonna be knackered!

SUNDAYS TAKEAWAYS:

  • Calm down.
  • Take risks.
  • Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.
  • I am a Restless Conspirator

Despite how I felt during and around the time of the weekend residency in Hull, I genuinely had a good time. I loved seeing everyone again, and folks felt much more comfortable in each others presence. The whole programme is brilliant and I love the company of my fellow artivists. Us lot are gonna change the world, you know.


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SATURDAY 6 APRIL 2019
Rocked up to Artlink, one of my favourite arts spaces in Hull. The morning was quite heavy, but I really enjoyed it. Vikkie showed a Powerpoint explaining all about the City of Culture (C0C) in Hull – it’s amazing how I had already forgotten about half of the stuff that happened. That’s quite bad isn’t it? It led into a big discussion about both the benefits and criticisms of the management and delivery of CoC, to which the Hullians gave their perspectives through discussion and within a carosel type arrangement. That morning, Franco Bianchini, Director of the Culture, Place and Policy Institute from the University of Hull, came to visit us and gave us a presentation on the statistical analysis of CoC. It was heavy and the facts and figures we’re fired like a machinegun but were REALLY fascinating; I found Franco himself very interesting and if I were in a better place mentally, I think I would have liked to have a natter about it all.

After lunch, the Hullians took the group to various people/places within the city as a bit of ‘field research’ about the impact of CoC to learn of some different perspectives (and in turn, how that relates to personal practice). The group were invited to choose between going to:

  • a studio in town to see a local artist, with Ailsa – I forget exactly who and what it was exactly!
  • a big community graffiti event down Preston Road, with Steve
  • an activism event/performance at Bean and Nothingness, with Hannah
  • to the Park Ave art studios to see local (community/) artist Sharon Darley, with myself

I had a good group come with me to see Sharon – we were there chatting to her for about an hour. Shaz is my studio neighbour and in the ~4 months we’ve been in there together, we’ve become pretty good mates and seem to be quite good at lifting each other up; Shaz is great and I have a lot of time for her. Before recently focusing on her own practice, she worked with the Goodwin Trust in developing community arts in Hull. She did a lot during CoC and is very involved with arts and culture in the City, so I asked if she would be happy to share her experiences to the UNIONites as she would have a very unique perspective on CoC and would be very insightful and honest about sharing her experiences. And wow, she didn’t fail to deliver! Sharon, if you’re reading this, you certainly made an impact.

She spoke about how CoC changed her life and gave us answers to questions that we went to ask, but it was the other more personal, meaningful stuff that I (and I’m sure the others) remember the most. Shaz was relatable and reassuring to literally everyone who came to see her, and made us all feel very positive and optimistic about ourselves as artists and change-makers.
After heading back to Artlink, we relayed what we had found out to the rest of the group. Some of the most heard phrases that afternoon included ‘Shaz is amazing’ and ‘We love Shaz’! It was great to hear what the others got up to though – the Preston Road graffiti event seemed to have made an impact on those who went too. I would have loved to have gone to Bean and Nothingness but I’m glad I went to the studios! It felt strange having others in my studio space though – there’s something quite vulnerable about it.

The following task involved mixing up the groups and coming up with some idea about how we would respond to a CoC event landing in our home town, using the information we’ve learnt and the criticisms raised of CoC from Vickie, the Hull UNIONites, Franco, the cities artists and our own practices as inspiration. Living in Hull and experiencing CoC, it was a bit tough to think what I’d do in response to a megaevent ‘after the fact’ (if you know what I mean), especially since I’m already responding with The Critical Fish.

It’s been almost a month since the residency, so I don’t remember all the presented ideas, but my groups idea involved inviting the city’s artists (as a critique of CoC was that local artists weren’t involved/consulted/supported or raised on this platform) to work collaboratively with the community (as much of CoC felt ‘done to’ instead of ‘done with/by’) on the back of already-scheduled buses (simple way to bring culture to diverse communities whilst promoting environmentally-friendly transport). The back of the bus could host performances, gallery spaces, drop-in workshops, poetry readings, conversations… whatever reflects the resident artists practice. Artists could sit in residence as part of an organised programme of bus residencies, or randomly, or both. They can choose to stay on one bus, or bus hop. In addition, bus fare would be included in the booking of tickets for organised cultural events (as transport costs are often a barrier for everyday folk to access arts). On the buses, there would also be a way of displaying a real/digital community notice board, which people could post offers of car shares or proposed shared taxis to cultural events to further reduce barriers. Art on buses. I reckon it’s a corker of an idea. I’ve got a thing about buses as a tool for community cohesion – I’m already trying to get a Recovery College bus!

We did a bit of reflection in our journals before ending for the day at 5pm. We went over to PAVE for a coffee before heading to a nearby Thai restaurant for dinner at 6pm. The meal was lovely. Some went out partying/drinking/socialising after the meal, but I weren’t feeling right in the head so I felt it would be best for me to head home and have a chilled night. Which I did!

SATURDAYS TAKEAWAYS:

  • I am genuinely ashamed of the racist alt-right attitudes apparent in Hull. Obvs, not every Hull resident is like that, but it reared it’s ugly head and it made me angry and sick. I also acknowledge that this may paint Hull in a negative light, but you can’t dispute that it happened.
  • We love Shaz. And everything she said.
  • The concept of artists being a target for violence in society had never occurred to me. I know it goes on all over the world, but surely not in the UK? Naive, possibly, but it did shock me a bit.
  • Authenticity is king.

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I’m writing this a LOT later on than I would have preferred – the second UNION weekend was pretty much a whole month ago now. Saying that, I’m trying to purposefully allow time in between <insert the something here> and writing about it to allow things to percolate and simmer down. In that time, however, I’ve been really tied up with The Critical Fish – editing, proofing, printing, writing, publicising etc – and planning and designing the upcoming Recovery College term’s prospectus, booked a trip to India, got a budgie, I’ve had a birthday, gone to the Lake District for a break… I’ve had a funny old month between now and then.

Most crucially, I had also felt my depression building momentum in the few weeks leading up to the residency weekend. I still feel in this place now, but I feel like I’ve passed the peak of the storm. It’s a bit of a tangent, although relevant. For an extended version of this post which reflects on my mental health, visit my website, but for this a-n post, I’ll just get to the point! It was just prior to, during and after the residency where my depression began building momentum, meaning my perception of the weekend wasn’t as positive as I’m sure it would have been if I had been within my ‘normal’ range of well-being. Reading back through my own reflective journal (written at the time), I can see that I spent a lot of the weekend feeling quite paranoid, self- hypercritical, frustrated at myself and very vulnerable. Looking back as well, I cringe a bit at some of my thinking and interactions with others – it wasn’t me. I shared how I was feeling (to some extent) to my fellow UNIONites and leaders who were very kind and supportive about it all (and it was really appreciated, honestly. Thank you all <3). I got the impression that some may have not known what to do or what to say to me, however, which is understandable. Especially if you don’t know someone all that well. For anyone wanting to support someone with mental health stuff: generally speaking, extra doses of kindness are noticed and appreciated. And I felt the extra kindness from some individuals in particular – thank you!
I think that when writing about my perspective of the weekend, it is important to consider that it was perceived through this filter.
FRIDAY 5 APRIL 2019
Our group packed out Kardomah94 (alongside a load of steampunkers, randomly) as we sat down to a MONSTER dinner. Salad, hummus, bread, vegan pizzas, nachos… it just kept coming out lol. The Hullians then took folks off to various places (well, the people who wanted to go do something). Hannah took some to a drumming circle session (which sounded awesome and I’d have loved to have gone), Steve had invited folks to a Hip Hop fundraiser he was doing for Dove House Hospice, and Ailsa, Vickie and I took people on a tour of the City Centre, showing off some of Hull’s public art, sharing random tidbits of history and explaining some things related to the City of Culture. The theme of the weekend was surrounding megaevents and the role of arts in place and community (and the ‘hangover’ of City of Culture), so the tour was quite apt. Ailsa was a tour guide in Hull, so she was very professional (and knowledgeable!) about it whereas I kinda chipped in/interrupted with my own sweary quips and pockets of knowledge. We ended up at Thieving Harrys, but everyone looked shattered so we weren’t in there long, but it was nice to have a bit of a catch up with folks. Best thing about being at home is climbing back into my own bed at the end of the night!

FRIDAYS TAKEAWAY:

I really like oat milk. And vegan cheese. And vegan cheese on pizzas.


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SUNDAY 13 JANUARY 2019

Got up, packed, wrote a secret thank you note for my hosts to find after I’ve gone which I left in my room (I wonder if they’ve found it yet?), and went downstairs for breakfast. David was up, Lily joined us soon after. I had croissants and toast again with a fresh pot of tea. When it was time I gave my thanks to them and said my goodbyes before heading over to ChapelFM.

We spent most of the morning collaboratively working out Ground Rules and the expectations we have of one another within the UNION programme. I found that to be a really good process, to be honest – we had time to go around to UNION team leaders and make suggestions for each of the five main programme ‘headings’ [Weekend Residencies, Coaching, Support, Learning Culture, and Journals] which we would then whittle down to the main/encompassing points. We all didn’t get around to all of the points, but the fact we all trusted one another to get it right between us says something, doesn’t it?

We then got back into our Seacroft Project teams to continue developing an idea. On the Saturday, our team came up with The Factory, an idea which channels antisocial and destructive behaviours into the acts of creation and skill swapping/development. It’s a winner, I must say; we called ourselves Team Smash, because our mutual confidence in the concept made us feel like we’ve ‘smashed it’. We already had the idea from yesterday so we spent the time today just fleshing the idea out and working out the process of how we would implement it over ten years considering purpose, finance, engagement, the principles of asset-based community development and community ownership.

We had lunch (beautiful, again! Thanks to all those who contributed with the making of it), returning to present our ideas to the others. Some had really good presentations (news reports and raps and all sorts) about good ideas (shipping containers and community markets) but my group despite having smashed the concept, made the mistake of getting me to lead the presentation haha. Nah, I’m being too harsh, our presentation was good – between us we got the point across and I think the written flipchart sheet explained points relatively well? Personally, however, I can find it difficult to explain complex ideas that I’m excited about at the best of times (can’t get it out quick enough), let alone to a massive group! We shared reflections and feedback on one another’s ideas and Adrian raised some great points about failure (that it’s ok), the voice of the community and the need for breathing/learning/development space.

Without going into too much detail here, this collaborative task made me think a fair bit about both my strengths and the areas that I could develop in both practical and interpersonal realms.
Speaking of reflective journals, the questions Chris offered were:

  • What was my experience of collaborating? What worked? What didn’t work? What was my role? How did I feel?
  • What questions are dogging me? Are there any unanswered big questions?

We did an awesomely cheesy group shot (good shout Ross!) after we all generally expressed how ‘gooey’ and ‘squishy’ and ‘optimistic’ we felt.

Steve came back in the car to Hull with me, and we had a good chat about his work with the kids and his music for almost the whole way home. Steve suggested the 4 Hully gullys maintain regular contact and go for a coffee or something in between the residencies, which I’d really like. The group are already sharing resources and reading lists and things on Basecamp, which is fantastic and is something I find myself already appreciating.

The other half and the cat were pleased to have me home, and it wasn’t long before I passed out on the sofa.

I’ve had a lot to think about, and it’s all noted down in my reflective journal.
Some of the things I’ve found myself thinking include:

  • where do I want to be in a years time? What do I want from Union?
  • if I’m pigeonholing myself a bit? Or if others pigeonhole me? I feel the ‘mental health’ thing is a bit pigeonholey sometimes
  • that I need to explore where the phrase ‘pigeonholing’ originates
  • I wonder how my need for constant stimulation would work in practice with the ‘slow-cooking’ nature of long-term community engagement?
  • my relationship with community arts and the ways in which to implement effective change, including within my NHS dayjob
  • the roles I tend to take in group tasks, what I’m good at and what I need to improve on
  • that there’s an interesting tension between allowing space and freedom within a project/proposal for growth, contingency and direction from the community AND the need for clear aims and objectives and outcomes required from funders
  • that I want to read more around art, activism, politics, social change, socialism, Third Space Theory…
  • I still didn’t get around to really talking properly to everyone – it’s just an observation, but it appeared as if most stuck with the same people throughout the weekend (anxieties? alliances? who they first sat with on the first night?) and I feel we need to engage in some more deliberate mixing!
  • that there’s this conflict I’m noticing as I find myself working out my direction, mainly between the art I’d like to make and the contentious topics I’d maybe like to explore more, with the age-old business advice of staying politically neutral as not to alienate potential clients/patrons/buyers/galleries etc…
  • wondering how I can implement some of what I’ve learnt into the development of The Critical Fish, especially during Phase 2

I’ve had a blast of a weekend, and I’m still honoured to have been picked to share this adventure with 19 other wonderful people and UNION leaders Adrian, Linda, Chris, Sara and Vickie (although I’ve not met her yet) and all the others I’ve met so far on this journey like Katy and Lily and David and everyone else. I’m looking forward to meeting up with my fellow Hullians at some point soon, engaging with my first coaching session from Vickie and following up on the intellectual and conceptual leads that have been presented to me in Seacroft… all before the next weekend residency in April!

What a year this is going to be.


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SATURDAY 12 JANUARY 2019

I went downstairs on Saturday morning to find this spread that Lily had laid out that would make any B&B proud – pot of tea, croissants, fruit, yoghurts, jams, mini packs of cereal in a bowl… She went above and beyond! No way could I have eaten all that, but it was very kind of her to give me so much choice. She did me some toast and warmed the croissants and we chatted over breakfast, before walking over to ChapelFM together.

After a coffee and a chat in the reception area, we went upstairs and began. We received an intro into the programme, the team members and the building, and we did some ice-breakery activities so we could learn a little about others who were on the programme and on the UNION team. What a great mix of inspiring people – artists, activists, theatremakers, musicians, writers… everyone is a grafter and a ‘do-er’ and I found it so refreshing!

We walked with some local volunteers over to the LS14 Trust, namely the ‘Small Change Café’ (a name I fell in love with) to meet Howard and his team mates. I was very taken by the space conceptually and aesthetically, let alone the atmosphere within it.

They gave us a tour of the building (including a great little balcony garden with a pizza oven and sensory planter and everything) and served us lunch (that soup and crusty bread was proper nice – thank you very much!). Howard was very engaging and a pleasure to listen to as he spoke to us collectively about the purpose of the Trust, how it works and the impact it has had/is having on the community. I learnt so much and things I thought I knew about were challenged, all in the space of about 20 minutes. I have pages and pages of notes and thoughts. I’d be here all day if I tried to explain everything that was discussed, how it developed my thinking and my ensuing reflections as a result. In short, however, know this; asset-based community development and cross partnership working is the shizzle, community work is ‘slow cooking’ (which ended up being the phrase of the weekend), drink lots of tea with people and that I like the transformational index and values that LS14 work to. That statement is a gross understatement of how much my understanding of things developed/solidified and almost an insult to boil Howards inspiring words down to that, but there we go     :D

My head was swimming with possibility when I did an interview (which will potentially go on the radio) back at ChapelFM. I don’t even remember what I said to be honest – think I was busy digesting information and concepts to give a reasonable interview haha.

The afternoon involved a presentation by Adrian, Co-Director of ChapelFM and UNION team leader, citing examples of and exploring community engagement, and the role of the artist-activist. I found this really interesting and helpful, although I still can’t necessarily pinpoint why. We then divvied ourselves into smaller groups to work on developing an idea that we would implement in the Seacroft community over a ten year period (more on that later).

We were given sketchbooks to use as reflective journals for the duration of the programme. Chris (weekend residency leader) asked us to spend some time reflecting on the following questions…

  • Who Am I?
  • What were my concerns? And how did they pan out?
  • What do I want out of Union? And what do I plan to put in?

…but to be honest most of us spent the time decorating our sketchbooks. I know I did – I needed something hands-on to do that didn’t require my already saturated brain!

Dinner soon rolled around (a delicious but spicy curry dish – it was beautiful – thanks!) and we were joined by our hosts (to be fair, I think Lily and David were the only hosts there?) for conversation and good food.
I think a lot of the others went to this bar/music venue(?) for a pint afterwards, which would have been really nice, but I went back with my hosts. They were quite taken with Steve from Beats Bus, a fellow Unionite, so we watched clips of him on Youtube before sitting down to watch The Voice over a cuppa. I played loads with Shadow and I wrote in my reflective journal whilst thoughts were still fresh in my head. My mind was still buzzing when I went to bed so I continued writing for a few more hours.

Thoughts included, in no particular order;

  • the importance of identifying area needs (walking around, talking to people) before solving those issues creatively -using your own skills?
  • reflecting on my own existing criticisms of co-production
  • talking to people external to the community you’re trying to support to identify outsider perceptions of it
  • how am I supposed to articulate my experiences and thoughts in a reflective journal and a blog? Which thoughts best belong where?
  • about Third Space theory and spaces in between
  • that I’m really (positively) overwhelmed by how much I’m enjoying the company of the people I’m with and the things that I’m doing
  • about what it is I want to do with my skills? In the community
  • about power and powerplays, however subtle they might be, and how that really does affect everything you do or try to do
  • Why Shadow the kitten loves walnuts so much? Do I get my cat one?
  • little avenues of thought based off snippets of the days conversations
  • that I really need to read around a bit more
  • that there’s still a few Unionites that I haven’t had the chance to really speak to about anything substantial yet, or yet at all
  • about what such an amazing job the UNION team are doing
  • wondering what the following day will ensue

So not a lot, then.


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