I wrote something about The Art and Social Change European programme that I have been working on, about training health workers and Recoverists in creative approaches.
At the end of the three day training event with recovery workers in Brighton, I was surprised when we asked the participants to feedback on which moments of the training had had the most impact on them, that nearly all the group spoke about the very first exercise that we did together that seemed to have set the tone and indeed the values of the training. I say first, but I mean after we had had coffee, discussed how much snow might impact our time together, signed the European paper work, established where the toilets were and what time we were to have lunch.
So, what did we do? I didn’t ask them to share their job role, their experience of recovery, their expertise in the arts. I asked them to accept that there is ambivalence in almost every situation and to answer the question
“what percentage of you wants to be here and what percentage of you doesn’t?”
What happened then is that people felt safe to share both their fears and their enthusiasm for the coming three days in a boundaried way. People reflected that it was useful to hear that they were not the only ones feeling anxious about the training and worried about falling behind with work tasks. It was also heartening to hear that despite the
issues facing people in their personal and professional lives, they were enthusiastic, happy to be in the room and ready to learn.
Asking people to introduce themselves with their job role and experience, a customary practice in training, immediately sets up a hierarchical atmosphere where we consciously and unconsciously compare ourselves to others. For me working through the arts is a way of groups coming together and connecting equally as human beings outside of the world of status, hierarchy and shame. This exercise creates feelings of safety and equality where everyone feels valued as they are, and we begin to create a space where we can see each other as allies and create together without fear of judgement.
Secondly it is helpful for “professionals” to reflect on their own experience of being in a new group situation and help build empathy for the people that they work with who will bring their own ambivalences to any situation. By reflecting on their own experience, they may gain a deeper understanding of the experience of those in addiction recovery.
Thirdly and most importantly, ambivalence is crucial to artistic expression and allows space for us to work with and acknowledge our ambivalent and sometimes contradictory impulses. For example, “I want to know other people and be known” and “I fear being judged by others”. If we work through theatre and improvisation we can create characters that can contain this contradiction. If I am playing a character, it is not me. The audience, fellow trainees, cannot know how much of myself is in this role, so I can explore feelings and relationships safely without revealing too much. This lessens my fear of judgement so that paradoxically I may feel safe to give more of myself to the group. This is of course, not limited to theatre, a photograph, a drawing, a dance or any other art form has this ability.
In our current society, I don’t see much ambivalence. I see polarised opinions and definite stances. Through using the arts in recovery contexts, I believe we can learn from and create through the ambivalence in all of us. I will leave you with F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“– the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted onto my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the “impossible,” come true. “
Kate McCoy – April 2018
The washing up is an everyday, mundane task that most of us share, but when we scratch the surface there is so much more to explore as this great project shows. Social pedagogy is also interested in, works with and explores meaning from the everyday stuff of life. Most European countries have an established tradition and professional discipline of social pedagogy (it’s rooted in society so differs from country to country depending on the culture and conditions of where it exists), but ours in the UK is relatively new and still quite unknown so I’m going to try to explain a bit about it through the lens of The Washing Up…
Pedagogy is a word most of us aren’t familiar with but teachers will be as it describes ‘the way of education’ a teacher, school or college might take. Social Pedagogy is about ‘the way of connecting’ the individual and society, it’s concerned with care and education and with relationships. Social Pedagogues are specially trained to work in relationships, especially where those relationships might be difficult – it is ethical and deeply humane, seeking to create strong, genuine, authentic relationships that truly support people in the ways they want to be supported. It is not a sculpting way of connecting, where someone else’s idea of who and what a person should be is the basis for connections (and corrections), but a gardening way of connecting so that social pedagogues are keen to create and nurture the kind of physical, emotional and social environments where people can thrive and be seen as the whole people they are, as the experts in their own lives and as people with rich and extraordinary experience and potential. All too often people are reduced to one aspect of their lives – children in care, people in addiction recovery, people with disabilities are good examples – but we are all so much more than the labels given to us. Social Pedagogy aims to question and ‘disturb’ the status quo and assumptions made about people, speak truth to power, flatten hierarchies and co-create a society, communities and relationships where everyone is enabled to fully participate, learn, connect and thrive whatever their circumstances.
A group of rather brilliant people have been exploring the washing up through the creative medium of performance art, and have the most engaging, extraordinary takes on the most ordinary of subjects, as you will see on these pages and when you come to the performances. Through song, poetry, prose and theatre this group have found a way of engaging with each other as equals with rich and extraordinary lives and potential. In social pedagogy we might call this project a ‘Common Third’. The common third is a Danish social pedagogical concept that seeks to strengthen relationships through doing things together – the theory is that when people with different starting points and levels of power share a genuine interest in something that is new to them both and explore that interest together, the different starting points, backgrounds, life experiences and levels of power are eclipsed by exploring the shared interest, and all the while the relationship between them grows stronger. So the Washing Up is a common third for those involved in co-creating the project, and the interactive performances could be a kind of common third between the performers and the audience.
That the majority of the performers are in addiction recovery is both immaterial and significant. Immaterial because while previous addiction may have brought them together, it does not make the person or the group or indeed the project. Significant because while exploring and co-creating this project every person is also dealing with life difficulties to one degree or another, there are good days and bad days and the group is understanding and flexible to accommodate what comes up – I see individual responsibility for the group and group responsibility for the individual in this project. Significant too because the project provides an opportunity to explore mental health and addiction in a creative way, with metaphor, and in ways that we can all connect with – only this morning I noticed a depressed teaspoon in my washing up bowl and thought of how cold and lonely it must be. The Washing Up gives us a fun and thought provoking way of thinking and talking about mental health and addiction.
So many people in our society are excluded for arbitrary reasons of discrimination and this has become a growing concern over recent years where we have begun to notice how judgmental and uncompassionate some of our services and professionals have become. This is not to blame, the environment has been changed beneath the public radar, and landscape has changed so that the priorities of professional practice have been obscured. In the UK our emerging social pedagogy is trying to redress this balance and change the landscape, and so too is The Washing Up.
If you’d like to find out more check this out www.sppa-uk.org
We had a great day at The Manor Gym East Brighton, where we were talking to people about The Washing Up which will be performed as part of Your Place Brighton Festival 2018. We spoke to people about whether they preferred to wash up using a sink or a bowl, asked them about their tea towels and invited children to decorate rubber gloves using paints, glue and washing up utensils. We had some very interesting conversations and hopefully got people interested in our show.
For me, the best bit of the day was the bus home. Nou (our songwriter) and I waved goodbye to John (our set designer and maker) and went off to catch the bus back to town. We were carrying much washing up stuff, including a rather delicious papier maché washing up bowl. As soon as we sat down, a woman asked us what we were up to and we explained about the show and asked her whether she prefers washing up in a sink or a bowl. She answered and then four other people started joining in. One had a dishwasher which prompted my favourite comment from a man. He held up his hands and said “these are my dishwashers”. He reckons, he is going to come to the show with his other half! All this happened between Whitehawk and Old Steine.
For me this was exactly what I want the show to do, bring people together and start conversations in a safe way. My belief is that we all really do want to, and enjoy connecting with each other, but we get nervous, scared or bored when we have to reveal too much of ourselves, fear having our opinions shut down or judged, or have to negotiate hierarchies. We love that the washing up is a way into connecting with strangers and talking about something small that might develop into something else…
Diaries to the ready. Brighton Soup is an event where four community projects get to present their ideas and win the entrance money. ” A fun community dragon’s den. The Washing Up project will be one of them on 8th December at Community Base. We are looking for funding so we can pay expenses and provide refreshment for participants as we create our show about Washing Up.
Why is it called The Washing Up and not the Washing Down or Across? We are creating a brand new performance all about washing up. I am working with fantastic artists at Cascade and the project now has a Facebook page. We are currently trying to raise some money so we can make sure that the project goes ahead. We would be massively grateful for any support you can give. Click here to find out more.