In the early months of my time at In-Situ, when The Gatherings was getting off the ground and we were still based at the Library but shortly to move into The Garage, the team were invited for a ‘Desi Breakfast’ at Mash and Jeni’s house in Nelson.
This was a comfortable, familiar ritual to the vast majority of people there; women and pre-school children who I would later get to know very well, all nestled on sofas and the connecting carpet, forming a circle in the back room. I had no idea what to expect. In the corner under the window and next to the TV, a folded play-mat and baby walker, tucked in between strangers, I sat to become the participant, sharing food as an intimate experience amongst a community I was the visitor in.
Listening to new colleagues, I was learning about ‘embedded practice’ and sensing it as a reciprocal hospitality - a thing that goes two ways - a mirroring of generosity, of openness. I found that a large proportion of this arts organisation’s activity existed outside of a calendar programme. It was invisible, hidden, embedded in process. In this new marketing role, I was often confronted by the question ‘Where is the art?’ But it seemed like everywhere where In-Situ had been working in the years before, now the possibility of art created new possibility for art. Or for action. Was this sense of possibility a thing in itself? I saw friendship, between the organisation, community partners and residents as a foundation for other unspecified future things, as well as for being and living alongside one another. And I saw a fluidity; a porousness of the edges of the organisation, to allow people, their ideas or their needs, in.
I knew that many of the Mums in the circle or preparing food in the off-shot kitchen had been involved for years already in activities in the development of the Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership programme, of which The Gatherings was a part. I recognised some people from photos I had recently been sorting in the inherited Flickr account at the start of my new role.
What was clear in going through this photo archive, compared to in other arts organisations in which I’d worked, was that it was more like a vernacular photo album. Snapshots of familiar faces were repeated in different settings, in different times of year and as people (especially children) grew visibly older or changed their appearance; their hair or clothing. Any more formal, physical ‘Art’ shown in the photos was often the context for the same people who were encountering it, larking about or curious around it, or contributing to making it happen, engaging with visiting artists, the team and with familiar places.
At this time I was learning a new language for describing this work - a process that couldn’t always be defined or easily represented in tried and tested formats. I reflect now that when we talk about ‘artworks’, or finished ‘pieces’ or even just‘Art', emphasis is on ‘The Artist’ and the work is contextualised around a narrative of their practice. When we talk about the Space (or a process) - it is easier to acknowledge all the humans and circumstances involved and contained within it. It can hold complexity.
The Hill and the surrounding Pendle landscape had, at this time, become the focus for our programming. Because of the historical way the programme was arranged, and with an emphasis on location, it seemed as somewhere separate from Nelson, which was programmed mainly around ‘Intercultural’ activities as a separate strand. But if you looked down most of the roads and back alleys where the people we were sat in a circle with lived, you had the perfect view of the Hill at its most recognisable - the slanted outline. You could see it as a whole thing from this distance. See it in context and look upon it whilst going about your daily business in town, where again, down many streets and in the Morrisons carpark you could look up and see it without being overshadowed. Seen here, its size was proportionate to the everyday surroundings. The Hill was a backdrop to life, a recognisable landmark for arriving home and a source of spiritual and creative inspiration.
Now in the back room scene, plates were starting to be brought in and space made. All covered with bright woven cloths and stacked, heavily laden. A mound had begun forming in the centre of the room around which we all sat, taking from it what we needed, or what we wanted, sharing and each being close to a different part of the spread - telling others ‘haveyou seen this over here?’ ‘Have some of this!’ With new things being brought in from the kitchen from time to time, moving the feast along.
When we felt we could eat no more, we spread out around the house. I sat in the front room with the cricket on the TV with Paul, Mash and his older daughter who talked about school. I was reminded of the church home groups and shared Sunday lunches that were so familiar from my upbringing, a space for everyone to squash in together, all ages and backgrounds, in the spirit of friendship (or ‘fellowship’).
Moving on a number of years and now in a different role, the opportunity arose to gather the Mums together for a conversation about their relationship to the landscape and to Pendle Hill. Out of this, the project Kill Your Desires emerged.
The premise of this almost year-long process was to create a space for sharing and wellbeing. I was interested in the idea of friendship between staff / team and the women / participants, and leading with a sense of the group as ‘the artist’. In a way that might start to fray the edges of who was organising, who was expected to make themselves vulnerable, who was sharing and who was doing the telling and the representing.
Because they were such a closely bonded group; three were sisters and others who had grown up with them as neighbours since the 1980s, we were the guests in their conversations.
We began by sharing the way we felt in the landscape and our everyday lives as women. We found so much commonality in our experiences, as well as learning from each other about things we had not previously encountered. Our cultural differences seemed to be an important factor in the richness of the dialogue, which I regularly recorded, transcribed and read back, verbatim, enabling the group to listen and choose what to focus on or leave out of a growing collective story that just existed in the space. It was a way of us valuing what was being shared by spending time with it.
Our weekly sessions were stimulating, joyful, empathetic, hilarious, devastating and overwhelmingly loud! We talked about families and expectation, faith, adolescence, our maternal and menopausal bodies, shopping, cooking and home decor, work and leisure, our health and losses. Adopting an intuitive approach to see where focused time and space might lead, we went on walks together in nature and childhood neighbourhoods, danced, shared food, visited the local history archives, an indoor spa, and Ingleton Falls.
An important part of the project was to acknowledge the dual nature of things, to hold without judgement the complexity of responsibility and freedom, in our respective cultures, faiths and relationships. But perhaps also of the parts we play.
The title, Kill Your Desires held several meanings to us; a time-old recommendation for spiritual growth, akin to the elimination of distractions when we fast for religious reasons; the recognition of the limitations, silencing or erasure imposed by others; our parents’ self-sacrifice to provide for their children, and our past sacrifices in return, both for and out of respect. It was also a thought that turned towards the next generation, whose desires appear within easier reach, the loop back to tradition, a greater distance. And it was a reminder to keep our own thoughts and ambitions in balance when working collaboratively.
Together we found that art, like landscape, could open up a ‘magical space’ through which you could pass. This liminal space could be accessed at almost any time and point in everyday life and throughout the seasons, regardless of where your home is. It could be done alone or as a group. This space brought you into conversation with yourself. It performed something we could relate to prayer and meditating on sacred texts, to inner faith.
In order for projects to run well according to the rules, people need to assume the right positions, but if a project is to scratch the surface and go deeper, make new connections and new realisations, then new structures are needed.
The job was of listening and translating, filtering to find commonality and working with that, re-inserting it back into the sessions, reflecting back and holding space for whatever came. At times, this felt like being the flexible sides of a filled paddling pool at a party, trying to contain the water, keep it in the centre.
One Saturday in Manchester I came away from an artist talk feeling horribly naive after making the suggestion during the Q&A that you could explore doing a project which broke down the barriers between artist, institution and participant. Surely, you just needed to make clearer what these were, was the response; clearly articulate the boundaries but have a friendly rapport, respect and commitment. But how about a process that was a thing in itself and in a unique embedded setting? (Was this an experiment? Did I have the right to do this?)
My questioning around this added a further layer to the title, Kill Your Desires, but also became a preoccupation to check my status, motivations and influence on the project. To ensure ‘co-creation’ and friendship; that is to say, trust, respect, honesty and long-term commitment.
But even if we decide to base our practice around the idea of relationship and friendship within the community in which we are embedded, someone in the equation is getting paid to be there - a point discussed with the Mums, who reiterated that we were like family. But nevertheless something needed to be acknowledged. Was the answer to pay everyone? What about if people didn’t attend? Would this be an hourly rate? There wasn’t even money to do this.
The week we raised this, we also talked about boundaries and listening, following a lot of personal sharing and a tendency to all talk at once. It was clear that one person’s boundaries were not the same as another’s. And that speaking without being heard was non-the-less compulsive. What is said and not said, shown and not shown, is the decision of the individual - but what happens when these things collide? One person’s sharing is another person’s difficulty. Who sets the boundaries in order to ensure safety? Who has the right to ask? Or the right to an answer? One person’s freedom to express is another person’s unfiltered chaos. One person’s safe space is another person’s oppression - being told what you should and shouldn’t say and do, what is or is not appropriate, is what the group had fought, and were fighting still, to move away from.
I had a growing unease around this shared space we had created, whilst also feeling a responsibility towards the representative outcome of something that had so much invested in it, but which had been intended as a process. These things collided with other personal circumstances, some relevant to the project. I was given time off work.
Before we got here, the project required some kind of visible shared outcome; an end point. Drawing and agreeing with the group a visual representation of the journey we had been on together, we designed and had made a folding wooden screen; a house, like a Wendy House. It had a central window between two sides; the domestic; the ‘have to’ responsibility to others, and the other side, of imagination, of creativity, of nature. Through the window, we gazed onto a waterfall from within a domestic room, and in reverse, onto the figure of a bride and groom from the nature-imaginary-internal side. How did this cause us to reflect on our responsibilities to others and to ourselves?
The Mums made the elements that they wanted to display. One day, one said (and then they all agreed), they hated what they’d made and did it all again.
We assembled the work in the Library, calling it ‘an imaginary space for those whose responsibility to others shapes their everyday lives.’ The Mums continued the conversations we had started with new visitors who left personal notes on the structure. They hosted as artists, sharing their story with others and inviting them to do the same. In this passing on, there was a letting go for me; a sense that it’s not about you. And there is undoubtedly a sense of loss in that. I had personally identified with so much of the subject matter from a different perspective, which I believe enriched the way these ideas could be conveyed. And a large part of the conceptual, framing input, the translation here was most certainly of me and part of my way of seeing. But it had created a framework to contain the experiences and aspirations of others and I was able to visualise for myself something I hadn’t previously.
Go back to the room and the circle, the food - the reciprocity. Go back through the dancing and the walks and the sharing.
When I returned from leave, I found how things had continued. A short film had been made, the structure installed in another library and I read the incredibly stirring comments and stories of people responding to the Mums experiences.
I’d drawn an outline, a space to fill. The outline of the window, the space between, the containing structure. I’d imagined the circle with the food in it, the periphery of the Hill. Where the art is……is creating a space. Allowing others to fill it whilst you hold it, or whilst you join with, or whilst you are absent, returning to find it filled, altered or continuing; parts of a whole.
Anna Taylor is a member of the In-Situ team working on Critical Engagement. She is currently developing the Thinking Out Loud programme. After an MA in Arts Criticism and Management, she began by working on exhibitions and offsite projects at Ikon Gallery and has since held various communications, writing and development roles in and out of the arts, including Redeye and on the Board of LOOK: Liverpool International Photography Festival. She is Mum to 3 children (11, 12 and 14).
In recent years she has developed her own creative practice combining writing, photography, performance and violin. Anna is interested in dialogues around art, nature, community and faith, and in ideas of not-doing as a way of disrupting centering modes of progress and productivity, hopefully building new awarenesses around participation, exclusion and possibility.
All images: Anna Taylor (2021)