LOW PROFILE are joined by Kim Wide in the 3rd of a series of LONG CONVERSATIONS.
Kim Wide is Director of Take A Part, a long-term arts-in-the-public-realm project for Plymouth using art as a tool for engagement and to shape local regeneration processes from the ground up while providing new audiences for art in the city. As a curator and producer interested in communication, engagement, access to arts and culture and impacts of social practice, Kim has worked both nationally and internationally to engage communities and the public directly in sustainable, educational, risk-taking projects about people’s lives and communities.
Through Take A Part, Kim has established an innovative co-commissioning public realm curatorial process developed and managed by communities themselves, with projects including: The Dividing Line (Mark Vernon), Nowhereisland Radio (Sophie Hope / Neil Rose / Mark Vernon), In Praise of Trees (Peter Randall-Page) and Shed On Wheels (Anne Marie Culhane).
Where Kim has years of experience shaping socially engaged projects which put communities at the heart of commissioning processes; LOW PROFILE are artists for whom audiences are essential, but not often directly involved in shaping, or participating in their work, as is the case with Picture in the Paper. This conversation aims to consider their own project within a wider context of practice that focuses more specifically on participation and engagement.
LOW PROFILE (LP): We’d like to talk to you about your experiences of working on a community driven art project over a number of years (Take A Part), around the challenges and rewards, maintaining momentum and the sustainability of operating in this context. We’d like to talk about ideas of building trust, of inviting people into a process and allowing them to help to shape its outcome.
You often work with communities to co-commission art projects that are then located within that specific community. The people involved often have little or no previous experience or engagement with contemporary art. Could you talk about why you think this type of collaborative process is important and how you ensure that the outcomes of the commissions/projects are of high quality and successful for the people involved and the artist?
KIM WIDE (KW): When I started with Take A Part (TAP), I was really not that skilled with this form of embedded process. The fact we took this co-commissioning approach was really organic in its development. It started with speaking to people about having art in their local area. Being a community and geographically very tight and in many cases quite homogenous in it’s population, people were guarded about art. Or more to the point, about paying people from the outside to come in and work.
In order to build the trust, we had to open up the process entirely. People wanted to know how much would be spent where, how people would be represented, how artists would be chosen etc. So the co-commissioning process itself was derived by the community. Those clever folk!
In terms of quality, now that is a really tricky one! People place different values on quality. Seeing Take That or panto is quality. Just as much as The Proms. And people are really comfortable with their experiences. If you ask a new community group generally what they want to do, they always want a mural or a sculpture or a community barbecue. They want what they have experienced. So what you have to offer them is the chance to see the new. The unexpected. To speak to artists and buy into their vision.
There is a lot of Go and See involved in our process. Trips to London to see BAS7. Trips to Vienna to meet WochenKlauser. Inviting artists down to walk and talk with the community. Slide shows, films and presentations on other projects in other places. Ultimately, the community need to make the decision on who to work with. Otherwise they will not engage in it.
This was an early lesson to me with WochenKlausuer. Our first ACE application said we would work with them so I told the community we had to. Massive error. Rookie mistake. I thought that approach would be fine, but the community did not want to work with them for whatever reasons associated with local politics. So they were ready to battle the process before it even began. That early project made me cry a few times.
This line of work is really emotive. You love the people you work with and for and want the best for them. It’s such a line you walk between trying to make the community happy and wanting to give them new experiences that can really push an envelope.
Over time though, as projects develop and people see results, the trust between the community and myself and the commissioner working to support them increases. It seems that now I have a lot less to answer for. Either that or I have understood the community needs that deeply after embedding with them for years, which means I have a sense of what would work or not.
HANNAH JONES (from LP) (HJ) – which really demonstrates the importance of time in this process – TAP has evolved with the community and a process of learning has happened together. Do you think that the community wants different things now?
KW – That is really interesting. Efford is much more specific about what they want and also much more demanding that things happen. TAP stepped back from Efford to work city wide recently as we have been invited by communities in other areas to support their growth. The result was that Efford has felt a bit less concentrated on. But for TAP it is natural to grow and move as the community should do to. We want to share our work in the city and felt that in staying just in Efford, we were staying still a bit. There was a sense that the urgency to create work was not there anymore. We still work with them but not on that intense level of earlier years.
RACHEL DOBBS (from LP) (RD) – I really respond to the idea of an organic development here and the idea of art offering something you haven’t experienced yet. The idea of skills and learning as you go, working out what you need in the situation and what you need to learn to be able to achieve things rings particularly true for me. As artists, Hannah & I haven’t really received specific training that prepares us for the type of work we make, but we learn as we go – each project requires that we learn new skills and new ways of working. In that way, we’re not many steps ahead of the people who participate in a project like Picture In The Paper. But we’re definitely building that bridge from existing, known and recognisable experiences towards unknown ones. A lot of what we do acts as a prompt to conversation, to interaction with other people, to a re-considering of things that might be taken for granted.
I think the idea of ‘comfort’ is also an interesting one, especially in relation to the idea of building trust and developing new and unknown experiences. People in art circles talk a lot about risk, often as thought its an abstract thing, but for me thinking about comfort and our relationship to it is just as useful a term.
What do you feel people in the community feel comfortable (or not) with from this process? And as you hint at, are there things you have become more or less comfortable with?
KW – Comfort is a big thing. We sort of have a two stage approach to commissions in communities that we have developed based on experience. We go in with something really accessible (like apple pressings, cob sculptures, community parades), to build a relationship with people and to be present on the street and to talk to them about art and value. Then we move the conversation along to larger risks and commissions.
I am not trained at all in what I do. I don’t think anyone can take a course on this sort of work and just get down to it. The entire process of socially engaged practice from my perspective is organic. No two commissions are the same. And although we have a co-commissioning formula if you will, it is never set in stone.
I also wonder with projects like this about the importance of the individual. Personal experience is important. I am Take A Part. I am not, but I am seen as being Take A Part.
HJ – I am interested in the idea of urgency linked to the work you have been doing and a sense of where/if there might be an end point to working with communities in this way. In a fantasy world, perhaps all communities/cities/villages should have long-term community curators working with them? Or maybe as you suggest its about creating a foundation for people to take ownership of the place they live in through a new perspective?
KW – My ideal was always to start something, give skill and move on. This worked well in Ham Woods where we worked on the Peter Randall-Page commission. We worked with them for about 2 years, completed the work and they have gone on to commission seating and apply for their own art funding. This is the ideal.
I think that maybe, being in one place for a very long time creates expectations and comfort which may not support handing over well? I am not totally sure but it does feel a bit like that with communities we have worked in a long time like Efford. They did not have to ask for more as we were providing it all the time. It may also be about the dynamics of a place and the people engaged in it though. Or a mix of both.
RD – That role of facilitator is a tricky one. And the potential difficulty of the feeling of ‘I Am Take A Part’ and the potential to offer too much. Yes, the persons, it being personal and us taking this on in a personal way are all really important to Picture In The Paper too. It has been important to people involved that we have taken time over the process and been doing ground work… but I think we’ve also had to be clear about the limitations of the project.
KW –Offering too much. YES! Boundaries get really blurred with this kind of work. I felt like I lived in Efford after a time. Expectations to be at school fetes and community policing events and fun days. I have learned organically again that I have to be clear with my time. I have learned so so so much!
HJ – Which is amazing! It would be really interesting if you ended up taking this model/TAP even more mobile and doing a project in a different place/city to see what it would be like to really draw that line about you not being from/in that place.
KW – And managing the limitations and expectations for the community as well. We need to be really clear that what we are offering is realistic and the outcomes are clear and the legacy is not too much a part of the plan. There is an element of trying not to let people down and the best way to do this is to be really open to what happens but not to promise or allude to more than you think you can get.
I would love to do that with TAP. I feel it is a really neat model now that can move about. It is a really simple formula of work. REALLY SIMPLE. I think that is why it works. It is not convoluted in any way.
HJ – I think for us its been interesting doing PITP in a place that we don’t live in. We have demonstrated our commitment to the project by being in Bath as much as possible and meeting with lots of people face to face / making the effort to go and find them / seek them out. but then its also been useful to be able to say to them, ‘but we don’t live here, thats why we need you / your help’ – being genuinely interested to find out what’s going on and to meet people, giving them a chance to tell their story/describe their passion.
RD – I definitely recognise the feeling of living in the place, or starting to become part of the fabric of it in some way, through invitations to be involved, to turn up to things and to take part.
KW – Exactly. My being ‘other’ is really important. But as I work in the city I am becoming less of the ‘other’. More embedded.
I was really interested the other day when I was speaking to someone about socially engaged practice and they picked up the term ‘social engineering’ as a positive way to describe it. I felt really uncomfortable with this phrase. What do you think about that? With developing new community groups as we both have, are we engineers as well as artists?
RD – The term embedded is also making me think of the way this word is used to talk about reporters / journalists who report on wars / conflicts but from the position of one side’s armed forces. There are limits on what can and can’t be reported and made public. There is a notion of control being exerted over another (a curtailment of freedom) that I’m uncomfortable with – I wonder if the idea of ‘social engineering’ makes me uncomfortable in a similar way? However, we definitely plan and build situations with a great deal of detail when we make a project / performance / artwork, so maybe the engineering analogy is useful?
KW – That is really interesting. And yes, I do think embedded means I am taking sides a little. I am siding with the community. You can get pulled into a real village mentality with this work.
RD – Yes – being embedded does mean taking sides – that’s a great way to phrase it!
KW – Even within the community there are sides.
RD – We have been on a process of uncovering rather than developing groups – but have built in room within the project to allow for the potential of new or expanded groups to form. e.g by inviting all the board gamers of Bath to participate, rather than just the particular group we met that runs out of a room in a pub. I think we wanted this openness in the groups to allow for the unknown. New friendships, new meetings, new possibilities – and to demonstrate that even when we think we are being open, sometimes we can be a little closed. A lot of the groups we met really do want more people to join them and be part of what they do. So some of what we are doing is about supporting the visibility of these groups.
KW – You work with those who respond best and try to pull others into that but sometimes the very nature of working with one group and not another (as it can turn out), creates a tension and sides in communities. Happens all the time. I was interested in your approach to work with ALL Am Dram groups or ALL beekeepers. That is really amazing and honourable. I was really impressed by that approach.
HJ – We also wanted to be open to demonstrate that the shape of these groups change all the time – people drop in and out, people move into and out of town, people sadly pass on…. that there are always more people who might like to join or be part of something…
RD – The ALL approach is difficult though and has an inherent failure about it (which I guess we’re also really drawn to).
KW – Haha! It does have inherent failure in it. Life is not a utopia. But we have to aim for inclusivity in approach.
RD – The OPEN approach has been really useful – choosing to focus on the ‘open’ quality of the groups we selected. In conversation with one of the first people we met for the project, we identified that there were definitely ‘open’ (anyone could join or be part of) and ‘closed’ (people had already formed a group and did not want new people to join unless they had the power to vet them first) groups. And yes, this is also the case with spaces and places. Our selection of the BRLSI as the venue for the photoshoots reflects this too – it being ‘open’ rather than ‘closed’.
HJ – When I talk about demonstrating that the groups change all the time – this is pointing to the inherent ‘failure’ of our project to capture everyone, to find all the groups, to do it all. We are, and have been, super honest that (a) that’s not the point and (b) we can’t possibly do that. It’s a moment in time.
KW – Totally. Well done to you for setting out your stall. Honesty is really important. Failure (whatever that is) is inherent. We don’t know what the outcome will be. We are doing it. That is why the engineering term doesn’t sit well with me. It’s process.
Maybe experimentation is more accurate?
HJ – One other thing I am interested in is that in our project and a lot of the projects you are involved with, ensuring commitment from those that you work with (the community members) is vital. How do you manage to maintain momentum and enthusiasm for a project right through to the end? (and active participation)
KW – That is also hard. We have to be realistic that sometimes Strictly Come Dancing is on the telly and people want to go to town on a Sunday.
We try to ask the people themselves to set the timeline with us. To tell us about their ability to commit. What they want to contribute. Some people are natural drivers in communities and want to sit on boards and make decisions. Others want to create and make. Others want to see.
Once you are with a community for a while you know where to go to ask for certain aspects of the process. But you really need to ask them to tell you what they can and cannot do.
It doesn’t always work though because a sunny day comes or someone’s cat dies or any number of human issues come about. You have to accept that may happen and have enough of a collective around you to push forward.
HJ – Yes, we have had to accept and be open to the fact that no matter what we do, or how hard we try, some people will drop out. We have had x2 groups out of the 20 which no one has tuned up to participate in a photo shoot for, which is disappointing but also part of the project in a way.
KW – Yes. I think too often people want it to ‘work’. It is not about good or bad. It happens. Commissioners especially want to see bums on seats. It is so frustrating and I am constantly trying to have conversations about it all being okay for what it is.
RD – In Picture In The Paper, we’re asking people to do something very specific – to turn up at a time and place of our choosing, to take a chance on it and actually make the decision to be in these photographs…
But what I keep thinking back to is the formula from the Open Movement about Open Meetings… And the statement that the people who turn up are exactly the right people.
KW – But you are rewarding them. That is what people want. Recognition for time. It is really important to recognise people. And they are the right people. That is so true. We have done things like giving out Culture Awards and T-shirts. Like the badges you give. A little recognition and something to hold onto, to prove you were a part of it.
RD – Yes, we are rewarding them, and that is a very clear transaction and built into how we have designed the project to work. It’s celebratory! Recognition is massively important.
HJ – I really love that people who have participated might wear their badges when they are out and about, and that people from other groups, might see them/recognise their badge and they might have a conversation, which they otherwise would never have had – for me this is really special.
KW – It is. And the PITP group is going to be proud to be that group. Like Crazy Glue. Once you are in you are part of the ‘in-crowd’. I love that.
RD – So, in a weird way, are we all giving people what they want? I mean, not ‘doing to’ people – but allowing for agency, allowing for new connections and new experiences, allowing for honesty, straightforwardness and the potential to become part of something outside of themselves. The things that we often forget that we want.
KW – Wow. Yes, we are! God that made me feel great! Because a lot of the time I am getting stick from somewhere about something on this journey, and really, that is what I am trying to do. Have a relationship with people to ultimately give them something they really want to be a part of and hold pride in.