At the seminar “Involving the community / Involved artistic practices”, held in OKC Palach on 13-15 March as part of the Classroom capacity strengthening programme of Rijeka 2020 – EPK and the programme line 27 neighbourhoods, one of the lecturers was François Matarasso from the UK, a cultural worker in the area of community arts, a researcher and a writer.
His work in the field of art includes numerous theatre projects, projects in the field of visual arts, numerous literary projects in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods, in nursing institutions, prisons, etc.
Your 39-year career has been diverse, to say the least. I don’t think I can name a single branch of culture or art that you did not pursue as an artist or as an organiser and producer. Could you introduce yourself as both?
Although you think there is diversity in my professional life, it seems to me that I’ve always done the same thing – community art. I’d prefer to describe myself as a worker, not as an artist who creates community art. By work, I mean intermediation first of all – this work is never directed at me, the emphasis is on helping people achieve what they’re capable of and interested in but are not adequately stimulated. Community art and participatory art emphasise the skills of people which are systematically neglected and gives them the freedom of artistic expression. At first I worked as an artist, but since the mid-nineties I’ve been devoting more time to the research of collaborative practices and consulting on development projects. In both phases I used the same skills I developed as a community artist – I always try to help communities to make the right decisions and choose a direction of development. I work by trying to find out what they’re interested in, what they care about, what visions they have, and I put this in the context of possible artistic performances.
You mean, you completely leave control to the community? How do you deal with situations when their choices do not match your values?
I have never, nor do I ever want to put myself in the position of lecturing and suggesting what communities should do. The way I work, is I find out what they are interested in, what they care about, what visions they have. Basically, I only transfer my skills to the service of others, but never carelessly. I’m not ready to help organisations and individuals I do not believe in, in whose projects I do not see positive shifts for the community or which go against my values and views on society. At the seminar Involving the community / Involved artistic practices organised by Rijeka 2020 – European Capital of Culture, I spoke with people who want to realise their participatory projects. This is a great example of how I meet different organisations where I do not want to talk about the theory of art, the theory of collaborative programmes or community art, but about the concepts and ideas which will be useful and facilitate the realisation of their projects.
You worked on projects by the World Bank, the Council of Europe, NESTA, Arts Council England, you worked with various communities in Europe and people of different profiles. By working with so many diverse people and problems, have you found something unique and universally useful in collaborative art?
Absolutely! The people I care about and the work I want to end my career with, such as Macedonia (author’s note: King Baudouin Foundation’s Living Heritage Programme in South East Europe), were the reasons why I worked with the institutions you mentioned. They are well-known, but have disproportionate visibility since more important than their names were the projects I worked on. When someone asks you, would you like to do something, what can you say? The applies to all big institutions. My relationship with them is twofold – that’s how I make a living, but it also allows me to work with communities that cannot pay for my work otherwise. For example, I’ve been working for a dance organisation in Colombia for 20 years completely free because I love them, because I believe in them and because I cannot ask them for compensation because of the limited resources they have.
The work that I care about is just that – Colombia, Macedonia, Bulgaria… I do this from the conviction that collaborative art is important for social development. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines the right of access to culture. This article is the last one in the Declaration that defines a positive special right and emphasises the need for an individual to represent himself in the cultural life of the community, because this is the only way to activate other rights. We speak about the Roma because they don’t have a voice, because they do not participate in the cultural life of the community. But by speaking about them we prevent them from articulating their problems themselves. That’s true for all marginalised and alienated groups – neglected children and teenagers, mental patients, disabled people, national and other minorities. They are written and talked about by others, they cannot present themselves on their own. That’s why this human right is so important and that’s why I deal with it and encourage such activities.
You talked about it at the seminar Involving the community / Involved artistic practices
Exactly, I emphasised the example of the painting by Simon Peircey, Still Life with Key. It’s a work by a former patient of a psychiatric institution that was established after the closure of a hospital as a result of austerity measures. After the closure, patients were left to their families or on their own and some unfortunate situations happened. An art collective approached the former patients and through artistic work reflected their attitude towards the closure of the hospital. In the end, the works were exhibited at the Department of Health and Social Care, and the people who made the decision to close the hospital had to pass daily alongside works of art made by the people whose rights they took away. The hospital didn’t like the poetry collection that was made as collaborative art, so they requested that we retract the story of a female patient who talked about forced treatment. They claimed she cannot be trusted because she is – crazy. I refused because that’s completely irrelevant – that’s her story and we’re presenting it as such, and she has the right to tell it.
That’s what I care about and that is the main function of collaborative art. Some people are not present in the cultural life of the community either because they are not professionals or because their amateur involvement is not valued because it represents everything that the artistic scene despises. And it despises it out of self-interest because it doesn’t want to share its status, resources and image. That’s why I do the things I do.
You must have seen positive social changes while working in Southeast Europe.
The people I work with describe to me the changes that have happened to them, but sometimes I see them before they do. All participants in Southeast Europe gained new perspectives on the world, gained new skills, new confidence, started advocating their position more openly, and sometimes their lives have changed significantly, both socially and economically. Nothing that I did has led to these changes; they came about because it is a process of empowerment. When talking about collaborative art, it is not my job nor do I have the right to change other peoples lives. If you told me to get involved in a project because it will change my life, I’d tell you to fuck off, because, who are you to fix my life. The real problem is the inequality of positions of power and privilege.
Could you nevertheless describe some specific examples that inspired you?
In Macedonia we worked in the village of Smolari, in the vicinity of the Smolari waterfall, the biggest in the country. It is a symbol of the village because for generations young villagers visited it to get engaged there, risking injury because the climb from the village was dangerous and demanding. They suggested that a promenade be built to the waterfalls and during the winter the villagers made it themselves and gained great visibility on television, in magazines and even in tourist guides. That consequently helped the local economy because the arrival of tourists resulted in an increased demand for hospitality and other services. It is important to emphasise that the village was and still is politically divided, but that during the project the differences disappeared and everyone was equally involved. I remember an anecdote where an older villager approached me and pointed to a person who was passing by – I don’t normally talk to him, but now we’ve been working together on the project of building the path and we were fine.
In Bulgaria we worked on a project in the Catholic village of Oreš, one of a handful of Catholic villages in the country. Proponents of the project felt that there was a problem with young people in the village – older villagers complained about young people who, because of unemployment disturbed everyday peace and quiet. The project revived traditional Catholic village dances, and the only ones who knew how to dance were the pensioners. All of a sudden they and the young people had things to talk about, share experiences, create together – they were fantastic. Eventually, they organised a dance festival and 150,000 people came to Oreš just to share the common culture. None of it was planned or intended. We just gave them some money so young people could learn how to dance, and the rest they did on their own when they felt the freedom and power to say what they wanted. That’s why it is important to give trust and freedom, and not just allocate project funds.
The last example was my work in the village of Avrig in Transylvania. A group of women wanted to establish a museum and revive traditional weaving (lace-making). They asked a curator from one of Sibiu’s museums for help, and he did it professionally and sent them a bill, and the women paid and sent him a thank you letter. Instead of being grateful for the help provided by the famous curator, they were grateful because, although they found his recommendations unacceptable, they helped them recognise their own culture and the project that they wanted. That’s empowerment – they never talked to a curator before, but they had the self-confidence to thank him for his advice in that way.
At the seminar you mentioned that there is always some friction between the community that finds it difficult to break with tradition, and the artists who open up new ideas and views. Does collaborative art have the tools to stimulate social dynamics?
If we return to the Enlightenment, the invention of “high art” has transformed all other art forms into second-class products. Today we still follow the same logic, and I think that’s bad. One way of moving away from this is by lecturing – pointing out to people that the art they create is good art. I do not think this is good because I want to continue to have the right to say that some art is not good. But the power of “high art” is that it has stimulated the development of art criticism, which in the context of contemporary art also turns into social criticism. This tool is useful because I don’t want to work with a community and say – oh, this work is very bold! Why would they have to care about what I say; they should be able to judge on their own. At the same time, I don’t want to work arbitrarily because I work in the contemporary world where critical thinking is priceless. I imagine a space defined by sincere respect with which you approach people you work with, but it must be mutual.
You can have different values and think your tradition is the summit of what you can imagine, and I as an artist cannot tell you that this isn’t true. But I can invite you to think about what this means in the world today, what the future of this tradition could be, whether it is the best way to enrich your culture and only then can we talk about collaborative work. I met artists who work in communities, but who don’t share my point of view and who want to control all aspects of the production. I realised that was a very confused way of thinking. If I offer my work to people this is because I have something to give, because I’ve worked in this field for years, because I have the skills, the experience and the imagination, but it does not give me the right to say that I am right and they are wrong. Ultimately, all art is a form of communication, the connection of two minds. In participative art this dominates and it is important to understand what motivates you and what motivates your collaborators.
The interview was originally published in Novi list on 20 March 2018.