Blimey, I’ve had a really busy few weeks! And I’ve got so much to tell you. I’m going to write it across three separate posts I think, possibly reflecting in a fourth. Dunno, we’ll see.
This post is about the experience that kicked it all off… the third UNION residency weekend in Manchester. I’ve been looking forward to the weekend for ages (I always do) – I’m surrounded by other passionate and HUGELY interesting people doing very insightful and inspiring things. This UNION programme has been absolutely brilliant so far, and I’m genuinely gutted that we’re over half way through it now… only two more weekends left!
The theme for this week was ‘Working from Within’. I find it really helpful to write about what we did because I’m really forgetful (it’s an under-researched symptom of recurrent depression, I’m sure) and it helps me to remember things. Also, it allows me to share with you some of the things I’ve learnt about!
FRIDAY 5 JULY 2019
As many an adventure starts, it started with a train journey. I got into Manchester Piccadilly, and after I nearly had a panic attack at the station because I couldn’t find the bus stop I needed (why is it not clearly signposted!?), I arrived at The University of Manchester’s Whitworth Halls, which is where we were staying for the weekend. We stayed in student dorms and OH MY GOD… I’ve never seen a room like it. I’m always grateful to have a paid-for bed but they were hot, musty cells complete with mouldy curtains. Everyone’s room was like mine (except others also reported giant spiders!) but we all seemed to take it in relatively good cheer, finding the humour in it. I never did the ‘staying-in-uni-dorms’ thing so it was an experience, but two nights was enough – I couldn’t imagine being 18 and staying there for a whole year though!
Anyway, we then got ourselves to a restaurant called Kim by the Sea, which is nowhere near the Sea. It was this hipster-y restaurant with a really nice vibe, though I got given my meal with a bajillion olives on (which I don’t like) and jalapenos (which I can’t handle). We had some really interesting conversations around the table.
First was about Enneagrams, and some of us did an Enneagram test – I was pretty happy with my result really (Type 4), although I think some of the wording is a bit unfavourable…
The second stand-out conversation I remember was about these cultural differences our conversational group experience, including the similarities and differences between Indian/British Sikh, Turkish and White British. We spoke a lot about our families (mine was deffo the least interesting lol) and experiences growing up. I really loved and valued that conversation, ladies, just so you know 🙂
Although I was shattered, we went to the pub after with some of the UNION gang before returning to my cell.
SATURDAY 6 JULY 2019
Saturday morning kicked off at the Green Fish Resource Centre with the theme of Working From Within. This weekend would be about using ones own lived experience to inform ways of working.
Fellow UNIONITES from the North West gave their own local projects as examples. Hannah passionately told us about Blaze, a youth-led arts festival organisation that develops the next generation of artists and cultural producers. It was started about ten years ago by adults as an Olympic Legacy type thing, but over time it became more independently funded and led by the young people (16-25) it looks to support (I may be wrong about some of this, sorry if I am Hannah!). The young people have control over Blaze, which looks like a really awesome project. It was good to see how it started off as something that wasn’t user-led, but over time became that… it got me thinking about Recovery College (my work), as I’ve been trying to work towards making it more user-led and coproduced. Food for thought!
Gulcin then told us about her project, the North West Turkish Community Association, after feeling isolated from her culture when arriving in Manchester. From what she was telling us, what started out as a small idea blossomed into an incredible community. The NWTCA is all about the celebration and education of Turkish arts and culture, and it’s programme arises from realising the needs of that community and acting upon it. Gulcin gave the most beautiful metaphor about how she sees ‘working from within’, which has really stuck with me. It’s a Persian story called ‘The Conference of Birds’, which I’m going to attempt to explain (apologies if it’s wrong!). There were many birds within a flock and they wished to find their king. The wisest bird suggested to find the legendary king they had heard about, so thirty of them went out looking. They set out and searched for their Bird King but struggled to find him. However, as they flew together over a lake, they looked down at their reflection.. and saw that they were flying together in the shape of a bird, realising that THEY were the king they were looking for. Like starlings murmerating across the sky, the leader may change for the moment, leading the flock this way and that, until another takes the lead. It is such a great metaphor for collaboration and shared user-led leadership!
I’ve been thinking a lot about non-hierarchical leadership models lately, in the context of work (as mentioned), The Critical Fish, XR and participation in general. How things work in theory, but not in practice. Or how things could work in practice given the time and breathing space… but deadlines, pressures, lack of resources, lack of interest and red tape prevent it. It’s the source of lot of frustration for me over the last six months or so. I’ve been reading a lot about this stuff, but haven’t found an answer to it yet.
Zoe then told us about REIGN, a project where survivors of child sexual exploitation deliver lessons/workshops and raise awareness about sexual exploitation. People share their stories in making change. Zoe also wanted to talk about the Autistic Pride events she runs in Manchester but unfortunately ran out of time. Maybe next time Zoe!
We were then given a presentation by Fereshteh Mozaffari Vanani from Sheba Arts, a user-led project to empower refugees and refugee artists. She challenges the under-representation of migrant communities in the arts, and uses her experience to support other artists so refugees and migrants can present their own narratives to the world. She encourages cross-cultural dialogue – she showed us images of events where people from all backgrounds are enjoying each others cultures and it looked awesome. I really liked Fereshteh’s spirit. I related to what she said about how Refugee Art is treat with pity and sympathy, much like Disability Art.
Inga at the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People was awesome – half the group went to see her over lunch, the others went to Horsfall Gallery. Inga spoke a lot about the social model of disability (vs the medical model), a cause which I feel very strongly about. She explained the difference between Impairment and Disability. Impairment is the physical issue an individual may have, such as brain damage or loss of a limb. Disability, however, is an issue rooted in other people which impose a state of disability (preventing the person from functioning). Disability is something done TO you as an individual. Disability is not a medical problem, but a social problem. We built upon the morning’s conversations by continuing to discuss the importance of language. We say ‘disabled people’, not ‘people with a disability’, as the imposition of dis-ability falls differently within each phrase. Disabled people ARE disabled by others. Inga was spot on in saying that everybody has the same needs, but how those needs are met are different for many disabled people. Again, using ‘service users’ (a term I’ve always felt uncomfortable with at work) comes with a lot of baggage too. SERVICE. USER. It’s a real patronising term and is pregnant with power imbalance, disempowering the disabled person. Also, we don’t say ‘carer’, we say ‘support worker’ or ‘personal assistant’. It sets a very different tone in terms of that power relationship, one that gives back control to the disabled person. I love how principled the GMCDP are in the way they work, how they source funds and their political education, including encouraging involvement in local politics and activism.
They’re involved with the #PeterlooProtest. There’s a public piece of art being installed, a monument, a podium, to commemorate the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre (I’d never heard of it before, it’s horrible, read about it) and to give people a raised platform in which to protest, to say their truths, to be listened to, to exercise their right to free speech. However, this podium is not accessible to many disabled people! It has a load of stairs and is definitely designed with an able person in mind. It’s disgusting, especially when you consider the context.
This conversation got me thinking a lot about my relationship with my own disability, and how language is used in the NHS and especially at work. There was a real onus around the power of language, and how it is important that the group sets the terminology. I experience and real annoyance and anger at how mental health services have highjacked the terms, ideas and phrases developed by the Survivor Movement way back when, and turned them into empty speech and ‘progressive’ buzzwords. Yet, being an NHS worker, like millions of others, we kind of have to work to existing frameworks and language even though we know they’re wrong or ill-advised. Language is really powerful.
She used a phrase which came to sum up the weekend; “Nothing about us without us!”. Yes, Inga! She explained how the GMCDP work – the coalition of people involved (including allies who understand the principles) and who utilise the organisation have a say in how it develops and how they align themselves. It was very powerful stuff.
Concerning work, it got me thinking about using art for activism purposes, and how we can do things differently, to champion peer-led support and make things more accessible… this could include like… the students making zines that could be distributed, YouTube videos of things to do at home, and try to consider how the groups that aren’t inclusive of all forms of mental health… It also got me thinking that since I’m thinking so much about work, work ought to be paying for me to be here lol.
It also got me thinking about the access of The Critical Fish. I’m annoyed that the first issue isn’t as intrinsically accessible as I would’ve hoped it would be, and I thought about how much of a statement it could make to have the whole issue where it’s black ink on yellow paper, in nice, big print.
For my own exhibitions, events and projects, there’s a few things that can help make something more accessible. It’s not an exhaustive list, but Inga mentioned the following considerations can help:
- Room Temperature
- Noise (background and environmental)
- Large Print on yellow backgrounds
- Plain, simple English
- Audio Voice Text
- Offer to read information beforehand
- Transport support/good links
- BSL availability
We also had a really interesting conversation about Assisted Dying, and how controversial it is in disability circles. Should there be assistance with dying after assisted living? Or are we judging quality of life by ableist standards? There’s a real divisive film called Assisted Suicide: The Musical. It reminds me a lot of a somewhat similar controversary in mental health circles… Can someone with supposed capacity make the informed decision to die? Sometimes people with suicidal intent are assessed as having the mental capacity to do so.
Coming back to Green Fish, we were presented with some questions to consider:
– What makes an organisation genuinely user led?
– How do user-led initiatives tend to start?
– What are the benefits of user led activism?
– …and the possible challenges?
– How can art and creativity come into play in user led activism?
– What makes a user?
With these things in mind, the two expedition groups shared what they discovered. The other group went to Horsfall Gallery, where they support young people with managing their mental health through the arts. It sounded really interesting too.
I’d have like to have done more about how to be a good ally at this point, but we moved onto the afternoon/evening activity. The idea was to think about your own lived experience and how that has influenced your activism/work. And then to create art (visual, performance, poem, whatever) with others with similar concerns in response to that. I really, really struggled with this. I don’t know if I understood the question, or didn’t know how to respond, or felt too divided… I don’t know. Zoe was a gem and spent time with me working through my thoughts and ideas, but I still went inward and withdrew.
I think part of it was not knowing what ’cause’ to focus on.
- I’m very much into environmental awareness and fighting for the planet. I’m a member of XR, I do my bit best I can in buying sustainably and reducing/reusing, offsetting and whatever.. and in terms of and my artwork, which uses exclusively natural, biodegradable, recycled or pre-owned materials, explores environmental ethics because it’s something I care deeply about, and I feel real grief about the state of the world. More artists need to be responsible in the way they make and produce art. Artists are often the canaries that sound the alarm (and more needs to be done to get the message out there), but many are wasteful and feel the role of artist excludes them from being responsible. Well, sorry, no. If you can’t think outside the box to make your art using ethically-sourced materials, then you’re not as creative as you think you are. And quite frankly, that lack of creativity probably makes you not a very good artist (oooo, savage).
- I get wound up about the art world about various things. I don’t understand this ivory tower nonsense, about art being pompous/inaccessible/relatable for the sole purposes of elevating the artist or making a ridiculous amount of money. More needs to be done in making the production and consumption of art accessible. I like the simplicity of the white cube space but I oppose the baggage, convention and intimidation that tends to goes with it. More needs to be done to eradicate the arty bollocks in my opinion, which is why I leant so hard into The Critical Fish. Navigating the institutionalised art world as an artist feels a bit like being Sisyphus building sandcastles – repetitive, hard, fruitless work that when successful, is only temporary before it is swept away by the tide. More needs to be done to make it more simple and fair. I am becoming more and more aware of my ‘social standing’ and I admit, I may also have a chip on my shoulder about the privilege and class of the art world. More needs to be done to support artists who can’t rely on the privilege of mummy and daddy. I’ve been on the sour end of it all too many times and it feels horrible, and so I want to push back against that.
- I know and care a lot about mental health. I’m not ashamed in saying I’ve been experiencing severe ill mental health since about five or six years old and have therefore had a colourful 24year history. I have in-depth lived experience but I have also been on the ‘other side of the staff room door’ after five years of working in mental health fields. I advocate for good mental health, recovery in the TRUE sense of the word (as in, the way that hasn’t been highjacked by commercial and institutional psychiatry and healthcare services – strong opinion, I know), the social model of disability, understanding the socio-economic-political impact on mental wellbeing (funny how that reality never makes it into policy isn’t it?), the importance of community and sharing lived experience and the power of art in all of that. However, I feel I’m really pigeon-holed with the mental health thing because that’s what I do at work, I’m mad and I care for someone with mental health too. I just feel that’s all anyone ever sees when they look at me.
All those thoughts about all those different things flooded my headspace all at the same time… and I felt very overwhelmed when trying to respond to the prompt of ‘think about your own lived experience and how that has influenced your activism/work’. I don’t have one thing I feel passionately for! Anyway, I went inward and moved away from the group for a while and just withdrew, and I didn’t make or create anything. Which in turn, affected me because I thrive on making and creating, yet I couldn’t do it :/
Sara brought with this AMAZING old book from the 70s(?), the ‘A Songbook; A Red Notes Pamphlet’ – which I loved so much I made it the feature image of this post. It was a collection of all the communist, revolutionary, anarchic songs (often set to well known folk tunes) from rebellious days gone by. I loved it. Some of the lyrics in there are SO not appropriate (throwing petrol bombs at the police? Mmmm…) but the rebellious passion and conviction of ideas were so inspiring to read. I enjoyed the DIY, cut-and-paste photocopier sort of aesthetic to it too. I’d love to see an edition of Fish using that kind of approach. I think it would be really refreshing. I posted a pic of it to my XR chapter, saying we need something similar for our actions!
We had dinner together at Green Fish (thanks to Linda and to those who helped make it – it was lovely!) before everyone (except me lol) presented their artwork, performances, poetry, participatory exercises etc on this awesome makeshift stage at one end of the room (think fairy lights and DIY flags). Everyone’s work was brilliant and engaging, and some of them were REALLY moving and powerful (looking at you Adrian) – I really enjoyed watching everyone be so creative and expressive and to see how people channelled their passions.
Later that evening, I was shattered and wanted to just chill out. Went back to the cell, had a shower (yes, they were communal showers lmao) and chatted with some of the others in the ‘Recreation Room’. We had some really great, meaningful conversations about all sorts (I loved the chat ladies, really) and before long, I hit the hay.
- We may be fighting different battles and come from different cultural backgrounds, but there’s many more similarities between us than differences.
- Everything in this world should be user-led. But I still wonder how this can be put into practice? Are cooperatives the way to do this? Coalitions? Collectives? And how do you attract ownership if the ‘thing’ already exists (i.e. RC, Fish)?
- Spirit. I’ve been impassioned by the others with spirit and it’s encouraged me to be a bit more forthright myself.
- There’s so many ways to increase physical and cultural access and meet the needs of different people. It’s given me a lot to think about for my current and future projects.
- Language is really important. Be sensitive to user-determined language and use it, out of respect if nothing else.
- I am pigeonholed, and it frustrates me.
SUNDAY 7 JULY 2019
On Sunday morning we went to the most incredible place ever. Even thinking about it now lifts my soul. It’s called Hulme Community Garden Centre. I love every single square inch of that place, seriously. Just go have a look at the place online, you’ll see what I mean. I’ll wait.
Isn’t it amazing!? There was this cat I made friends with there too. A beautiful one called Lily. I stroked her whilst she was mooching around and before I knew it, she had followed me back inside the polytunnel where we was and she climbed up and sat on my lap. I suddenly became really popular haha!
We spent some time writing in our reflective journals, before going to another part of the Garden Centre to sit outside in the sun and have a chat about personal resiliance. When you work from within you give a lot of yourself, and as an artist who wants to work with and emptathises with people (often people who are vulnerable or face strife), it’s very easy to experience emotional burnout and as freelancers (which I’d say most artists are) and/or activists there’s no Occupational Health to turn to for support. So this was a really important thing to cover, especially as I had only recently come out of a five month spell of depression.
Sara had a flip chart at the ready to explore ideas around balance, and the effects of neuro-chemicals and how we need to keep them in balance for our own mental wellbeing. She did this really useful diagram involving red, blue and green circles and for life of me I can’t find the notes I did about it, but I remember it helped me to see things a little differently.
We explored Meditation/Mindfulness, which some were opposed against. I personally feel it’s a tool to use in moderation, and for the right reasons. By this, I mean that meditation has helped me greatly in slowing down, being in the moment, reducing acute anxiety etcetc. I teach Mindfulness myself, for a reason, and that’s because it’s good. It’s easy to learn and a good preventative tool.
However, in my experience meditation is useless when you’re in crisis (maybe meditation gurus can do it effectively in crisis, but for us mere mortals it’s unlikely) and I oppose the commercialisation of it, the over-reliance of it in healthcare (yes, it helps, but it puts the onus for recovery squarely on the sufferer) and the fact that it stifles justified dissent (‘with each breath, learn to accept the crap life you have!’). It’s a powerful thing, and there’s no denying it works and can help resliance; but like most tools it can be used for nefarious purposes!
Chris continued upon the theme of ‘balance’ by telling us about this Native American Wheel analogy. Again, I can’t find the bit of paper I wrote it on but it was great. It was all about finding balance and it was a good way of reflecting on your life (if I find the bit of paper I’ll come back and add it here!).
After a beautiful lunch in the garden, we headed over to this awesome delapidated old theatre, the Grand Junction Theatre/Hippodrome/Hulme Playhouse, which has been taken over by squatters and repurposed for benefit of the local community. Whilst we was there, there was a marketplace going on, with a DJ playing music and selling records on the stage. It was mega cool. We spoke to one of the founders and I found her and what the community had done there really inspirational.
We walked into Manchester City Centre to have a look at the Manchester International Festival. One of our UNIONITES, Gulcin, was performing there but her show time was moved last minute and we ended up missing her… which was a shame because I’d have loved to have seen her perform!
We wandered around, and caught this incredible performance that had moments of audience interaction. It was down a side street, and I sat on the kerb to watch it. It involved this amicable British cheeky chappy cab driver (meant to be an Uber driver) and a food delivery biker (meant to be a Deliveroo guy). I don’t even know how to explain it, but the cab driver ordered food from a takeaway in between jobs, but the rider delivered the wrong meal (at fault of the takeaway) and there was this sort of fight going on between them, and the driver was being out of order to the rider to the point where the rider has a bit of a panic attach. We then find out that he was a gay refugee from Nigeria and about the horrific journey he had to make to find safety in the UK… and then some. It was really powerful and emotive and it touched upon all sort of topics in the 15-20 minutes it went on. There were hints of community, racism, prejudice, Brexit, revolution, compassion… there was a lot in there. It was one of the best street performances I ever remember seeing, and I’ve seen a lot!
After seeing a bit of another performance and chatting to some of the others in UNION, I wandered over towards Manchester Piccadilly to make my way to my next adventure. And that was the end of my 3rd UNION weekend! It’s not not long to my next one now – end of August, and we’re up in the North East. Where I admit, I’ve never been to lol.
It was a great weekend. I find the organisers and my peers so inspirational and motivational. I feel like I took much more away from this weekend than I did from the Hull weekend (some of the NW UNIONites expressed a similar feeling about feeling like you’re not learning as much on your home turf lol). I’m trying to think of further reflections, but I think I covered most of what I was thinking as I went along.
- A weekend of the student-dorm experience was enough for me.
- I know a very talented, very inspiring and very generous and compassionate group of people.
- I live in a way that it out of balance and is unsustainable for my needs as an artist, as a person with mental difficulties and as a human being. I have become acutely aware of this since my last spell of depression and Sundays conversations kind of brought it home again for me. In the last month I am making active changes in all areas of my life in an attempt to rebalance the scales.
- I need to see more street performance.
- User-led community activism is wonderful. Rock the boat! Be a restless conspirator!