In 2020, In-Situ accepted three ongoing commissions from external agencies to bring artists into problem-solving processes with the Nelson and Colne community. These projects include a Town Deal bid, a healthcare project, and a project concerning the ‘growing problem of young people and anti-social behaviour’. In each project, In-Situ has been asked to broker conversations for which the tools have been lost, or perhaps never existed. Each project interacts with a complex super-structure – healthcare and communication, policing and justice, and urban planning. Throughout, the same questions about individual agency within powerful systems are central.
There seems to have been a collapse in communication between these systems and us, the people they are supposed to protect and benefit. This breakdown is to the extent that we often feel totally disenfranchised and disconnected from the ways decisions are made about where we live, the care we receive, and the ways we connect with each other. In-Situ’s role within these projects offers the potential to revisit the assumptions we make when we pledge our trust in ‘managerial’ civic organisations like healthcare and policing. If we cannot ‘opt-out’ of these structures, is consent ever possible?
In this text, I want to suggest what possibilities are available when we choose to forge and follow new paths. I offer a reflection on healthcare and justice, taking into account historical and contemporary efforts to work outside of, and indeed against, these systems. For almost a decade, In-Situ has consistently taken a position on the responsibility of art organisations to centre social questions in their practice, and the limits of this. Their tenure has coincided with a period of methodical defunding of community care to serve a neoliberal ideology. The current projects offer the chance for a critical dialogue to happen between very different practices of working. What can be gained through working in this way; what can it reveal about where we are now, and where we long to be in the future?
Imagine a healthcare system oriented to the cultivation of wellbeing, rather than the treatment of sickness. In 1925, two doctors led an experimental movement to explore just that. The Pioneer Health Centre was a social investigation carried out in Peckham, a historically working-class southeast London neighbourhood. For a small subscription, local families had membership to the Centre, where they could visit the doctor, and also access a swimming pool, clubroom, theatre, cafeteria, and playroom. Members could purchase organic fruit and vegetables grown on a farm in Kent. The people at the heart of this movement wanted to test the principle that good health means more than simply the absence of disease, expanding the tightly constrained Westernised theories of medicine to include food, conversation, movement, art, and play.
The Centre was closed in 1950, deemed incompatible with the new centralised National Health Service. It was later reopened and for a time managed by the local authority as a public leisure centre, until it was finally sold to a private developer in the 1990s, its beautiful swimming pool now accessible only to residents. But in the two decades it existed, it presented a vision of an alternative, collaborative model of healthcare that privileged the mental and emotional health of human beings on equal terms with the physical. In offering this example, I am not questioning the validity of skilled medical professionals and the incredible work they do under complex and pressurised circumstances. I am asking what we give up when we submit to a system that attends to sickness before wellbeing, and how we might flourish within alternative, collaborative models of healthcare.
As with healthcare, there are rigid roles observed in our criminal justice system, comprised of police officers, lawyers and judges, and taking place in courtrooms and prisons. Avenues for restorative or community-led justice are so delegitimised as to be practically non-existent in this country. Most of us spend our lives trying to avoid interacting with this system, where the balance between care and punishment is heavily weighted to the latter. The UK has an astonishing rate of recidivism: 75% of prison leavers will reoffend within nine years, which suggests that prison is not fulfilling its purported aims to produce ‘reformed’ or ‘rehabilitated’ individuals. And yet, in their 2019 manifesto, our current government promised to create another 10,000 new prison places in the next decade. Prisons are now mostly operated by private companies, which need to fill those places with people in order to return a profit.
Where will they find these new inmates? Well, prison research demonstrates how the ways we are policed and judged are getting harsher – a steady creep that seeks to prosecute above other civic options, and imposes longer sentences for lower level offences. By increasingly criminalising the behaviours of young people who don’t have enough appealing alternatives, the police and other bodies are reinforcing a pathway around ‘misbehaviour’ that, for some, will result in a custodial term. The system has a long memory: going to prison even for a short time can constitute a life sentence when it comes to the attached stigma that will limit your options for a fulfilling work and social life forever.
"How can young people claim space in a place that offers them no real place to be? What is their agency, where is their power?"
For In Situ, the current challenge is to intervene within a healthcare structure that struggles to meet the communication requirements of many Nelson and Colne residents. How might the private or cultural ways that we heal ourselves come to bear upon the ways these residents currently interact with healthcare providers? Likewise, in Colne’s Lost Youth, we see the potential to offer young people the ‘right of reply’: a chance to interrupt the received narratives about their lives, values and interests, and pose alternative questions. How can young people claim space in a place that offers them no real place to be? What is their agency, where is their power? What, indeed, could be their stake in a Town Deal?
Mutual aid is an anarchist concept, first expressed by Peter Kropotkin in 1902, and lately reinvigorated during the Covid-19 pandemic through gestures like childcare collectives and pop-up book exchanges. These expressions of care challenge received ideas of who are the givers and receivers of goodwill and charity, making tangible the notion that we are all powerfully interconnected. Working-class communities have historically relied on this way of supporting each other in times of collective need, notably in Lancashire during the ‘cotton famine’ of the 1860s.
At the heart of this radical method of self-organising is the antithesis of our current paternalistic models of local governance, healthcare and policing, with their emphasis on specialisation and their bias towards reliance, rather than reciprocity. In the past year, the fallacy that people will revert to self-serving individualism during times of collective crisis has folded. Instead, we have seen how instinctively we bend towards one another, to find respite for our grief or offer our shoulders for support. We are calling for greater humanity within our healthcare and justice systems, demanding an end to their inherent racism, and seeking equity for those who are multiply marginalised.
"There can be no doubt that this way of working represents a more hopeful future, and along the way, fundamental questions will be asked, and answers will be offered."
Inviting an art organisation to lead such conversations acknowledges the importance of the imagination when the status quo is not working. There can be no doubt that this way of working represents a more hopeful future, and along the way, fundamental questions will be asked, and answers will be offered. At their best, these projects will circumvent the inadequacies and inefficiencies of the systems involved, and relocate the dialogue to a space where ideas of freedom can be explored and tried.
This writing has been created and shared as part of Thinking Out Loud - a series of texts and conversations from a wide range of perspectives within In-Situ's practice, that explore the social role of art in everyday life.
Siobhán Forshaw is a curator and researcher, currently working as Curator of Community Programmes at the Whitechapel Gallery. Her interests are in projects that explore contested cultural memory, the relationships between care and labour, human and more-than-human community systems, and lately in power devolution and access in the art world, particularly concerning class and disability.