I'm reading the notes I took from my meetings with Sarah Cole and Germander Speedwell last week and am imagining myself taking a slug of helium, dancing on my desk, singing very loudly "I will survive!" - one of the many activities that Sarah has done with members of the Islington Carer's Centre over the last couple of months.
It seems a prescient statement, considering the strands that linked my conversations with Sarah and Germander - and with Lucy Harrison, who I bumped into in the library later that day. Gloria Gaynor's words could very easily be a reference to the fragility of the British welfare state, local libraries, the care system, community support networks and access to arts education.
Like all neighborhoods in London, Archway has its own particular identity. From my experience as an outsider, it feels fiercely local - covetous, almost, of its past and its reputation as an edgy, bolshie place to live. My conversations with a number of the artists involved in A Million Minutes confirmed this: from the maverick who runs the Islington Carer's Centre, to the man who mends broken appliances at Second Chance, these projects seem replete with the type of people who are literally holding a strand of British society together, against significant odds.
The question What do you think you're doing? is aimed at everyone involved in A Million Minutes: the artists, AIR, Central Saint Martins, Islington Council, the hosts, participants and myself. It could also be aimed at the State. The intention is for it to be a critical prod, an agitator, and a catalyst for thought and conversation.
When I met up with Sarah Cole towards the end of last year we agreed to meet at Jerwood Visual Arts in Southwark. Grizedale Arts and Marcus Coates had devised an exhibition entitled 'Now I Gotta Reason' which focused on art making as a useful and productive activity. It seemed to hold many parallels with the ambitions of A Million Minutes in the expressed wish of the commissioners to find a way of reaching beyond an established art audience in order to find new ways of making and thinking about art.
I asked the design duo Endless Supply, one of the participants in 'Now I Gotta Reason', to layout and print the title to my A Million Minutes project: What do you think you're doing? (see pic). I have positioned it above my desk on my office wall where it has assumed a rather ominous tone.
I'm looking forward to seeing the culmination of Sarah Cole's and Germander Speedwell's projects next week and discussing with them in more detail how they feel their work has progressed. The questions I'm particularly keen to ask are: What do you consider to be your role in this project?, How can artists maintain conceptual clarity while working in often demanding or socially complex circumstances? How important is a public audience (including a specialist / visual art audience) in your project?
Something Germander said when I popped in to Second Chance a few weeks ago has been churning over in my mind: "It’s been good to feel useful".
There's a groundswell of interest in the idea of artists being useful to society at the moment with all sorts of links being made to the Arts and Crafts movement and the work of Ruskin and William Morris. A Million Minutes, and in particular the Hosting commissions, could be positioned within this interest, with artists carrying out particular roles within institutional settings, which could be said to provide a particular service, e.g. helping carers get through the day, librarians and library users to consider their value, and mental health sufferers to express their fears.
Warrick Stanley, the fantastic book specialist at Second Chance, is clear about the effect that Germander's presence and work has had on the staff. "Germander's astute observations on the workings of our shop elevated the mundane to an art form. She shone a light on the processes we have put in place to display and sell our stock. Her closing event - which entailed staff and visitors reading Germander's poems aloud - was a poignant reminder that the organisation is made up of individuals, from young volunteers who come in for a few hours a week to the owner, and that we all play an important part in the running of the shop. It’s wonderful to have an opportunity to be viewed by an outsider and to look at your priorities afresh."
I chaired the 500,000 Minutes event last week. A really productive afternoon with a fantastically strange mix of people: artists, local council employees, Central Saint Martins staff and students, ACE officers and hosts.
Some very useful points, issues and questions were raised. Here are some of them:
The importance of having enough time to develop a relationship - between artists, the public, user groups and hosts - in order to be comfortable with 'unknowingness' and with 'not using time well' in order to reach a point of meaning.
The benefits of local authority services working with artists to reach, engage and inspire socially excluded people: 'How can we bottle this enduring transformational value?'
Who cares for artists?
The important role that Central Saint Martins as an HE provider in the area and its students play in the project - supporting artists and the AIR team and providing a rigorous context as well as opportunities for students to develop their practice.
Visibility - what is the outcome of these activities? Where is the work?
Hostings: How can an essentially private relationship between an artist, host and clients become public?
The importance of artists having an assistant to work with to free up artists to deal with difficult issues and focus on their project.
Windows: Gives artists the opportunity to test ideas in a structured environment and very public space with an immediate audience. This can be awkward and exhausting but potentially hugely beneficial to artists' practice and Archway residents.
Hard to find a balance between playing the role of an artist who is performing in a shopfront, rather than just 'being' an artist who is making work
The Windows space really draws attention to the public / private nature of making art. The creative process is usually kept behind closed doors and only when it is considered to be complete, is the result then presented to an audience. In this instance artists are making work whilst on public display. This performative element was something that Jane Cheadle raised at the 500,000 Minutes event: how much the artist is 'on show' and how uncomfortable this can be at certain times.
Rosie Edwards chose to control this environment by building a hoarding behind which she positioned herself. She was, in effect, absent from the Window, her actions only noticeable to the dedicated on-looker.
The tables were turned; Rosie could spy on people and eavesdrop on their conversations ('Looks like spaghetti' and 'I think it's art'.)
Painting with balloons
A million minutes have now past. An incredible range of artists, participants, local residents and students have contributed to the success of the project. The streets of Archway and Finsbury Park have been infused with art and action.
Some questions and statements by way of an ending:
How well has AMM failed and who is in a position to make this judgment?
It is important to start from a 'zero position', where nothing is to be assured and everything is to be thought out afresh. (Stephen Willats, The artist as an instigator of changes in social cognition and Behaviour)
Who are you working for and who are you trying to please?