Catherine Cartwright writes...
What relevance does the concept still have for participatory practice? This piece is a reflection on the role of the artist in participatory practice, drawn from my current residency at a women’s refuge and my previous project work with vulnerable women. Through exploring still’s definition and connotations I propose an alternative framework for viewing the artist’s role in this context.
I have worked with vulnerable women through several projects, often together with artist Nicci Wonnacott from whom I’ve learnt much. I am part way through my five month residency and I’m there at the refuge twice a week working both directly with the women, and on my own work. My practice explores the nature and contradictions of containment and freedom.
How can still be defined? This poem encompasses the varied meanings of still.
still, calm, calming
still, a pause
secret, stable, tranquil
‘be still my heart’
‘still waters run deep’
up to a time: yet
‘to still the raging sea’.
To be still is to be calm and calming. It can still a raging sea and, at the same time, describe the still waters where currents eddy through layered depths. Still is a pause; the pause at our beck and call, the mind’s rest that can unfold, open up the heart and let the body heal. Still is ‘up to a time: yet’; a silver lining, a hope, a nevertheless. And because of this, there is always afterwards.
To be calm
The artist is calm. They bring to the environment a steady heart and mind. The artist works in the present moment with all outside considerations put aside. Always there is a plan, sometimes minutely thought through, but the essence of the plan is that it is not set. This contradiction is foremost because the artist never knows who exactly is coming until they arrive, and what the group dynamics will be. Once the participants have arrived its necessary to then read the atmosphere and adjust accordingly, and to each individual. Being calm allows space for the atmosphere to unfold and for individuals to arrive without being ‘set upon’ the moment they enter or feeling that they are late or have done something wrong.
To be calming
The artist promotes a gentle, supportive atmosphere where participants are most likely to feel at ease and open to a new experience. In working with vulnerable women, making them a cup of tea or coffee is top of the list, close behind are biscuits, fruit or chocolates.
The artist provides opportunity for a pause through creative activity.
“When your life is in danger, you can’t have a picnic in the rain”. This phrase, from a survivor of domestic abuse, eloquently summarises the situation that women fleeing domestic abuse face. The opportunity to be creative is not there until their situation becomes safe and their guard can be let down. We all need a pause. A pause in our day that allows the mind to rest.
Still living, still loving; at the refuge it is the women’s resilience that is core to the energy of the activity. Participatory practice is a democratic creative practice where all the people present need to contribute for the action to be effective or successful. The artist draws inspiration and learning from the participants themselves.
Still waters run deep
We are full to the brim of our life’s experiences, and our emotions run through us like currents in the sea; at all temperatures and depths. The artist recognises this in every individual and aligns themselves to each participant with understanding and without conscious or sub-conscious judgement.
Up to a time: yet
This refers to the present moment and silently speaks of afterwards. It is the promise of change with each new moment. ‘Up to a time: yet’ reflects participatory practice’s potential for transformation. This is the motivating passion that drives the artist; that their actions are a catalyst for change in the individuals they work with.
Still a raging sea
The artist has the potential to ‘still a raging sea’, or put another way, change the direction of the wind that is blowing a gale. Through providing ‘a pause’ in a calming environment, with a calm practitioner, activity with transformational potential, and implicit understanding that ‘still waters run deep’, it is possible that lives lived in conflict can remember calm and find peace.
The still and stillness of participatory art practice.
My current artist residency arose through former contact with SAFE (Stop Abuse for Everyone) on projects in recent years. The residency is funded through grants (Arts Council, Visual Arts South West, Exeter Arts Council) and a Crowdfunder UK campaign. Many thanks to SAFE for their trust in me and to my two volunteers, Mary and Bev.
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