This blog is the last in a series of three on ethical facilitation by Vanessa Kisuule, Bristol City Poet and Temple Quarter artist-in-residence. Find out what Vanessa has to say about appropriate outreach and engaging with people from different backgrounds in her previous blogs.
As an artist from the outside coming into a new space, it’s hard to make woolly notions such as art, aspirations, the future and self-expression seem relevant. It’s a similar conundrum for the university as they try to translate the glowing buzzwords of inclusivity, diversity and public engagement into concrete actions that benefit the public. Awareness of the university’s new Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus will hopefully increase as its opening date draws nearer and the buildings take physical shape. What’s harder to articulate and get people excited about is the potential for social change that brews alongside it.
In a bid to connect these dots, I have often found myself working backwards. Instead of thinking about how the university’s agenda fits into the lives of local people, I’ve tried to learn about the many things that Bristol citizens want changed about the city. From there I work out what, if anything, the new campus might offer around their concerns and form my work from that. The issues that cropped up are familiar: better job prospects, cheaper and accessible childcare, more reliable transport links and less stigma around minority groups. Whilst there are some very exciting conversations around technological innovation and research around the new campus, it seems difficult to discuss these whilst many people feel that even an entry-level job at the university is out of their reach. This speaks to how potentially polarising tech advancements might be if they race ahead before we have addressed the deep gulfs in opportunity across class, gender, race and ability.
Getting the group to talk about these issues without inserting my own political beliefs was both difficult and fascinating. We played a game where they each had a job title on a post-it note that they represented – the jobs ranged from social worker, teacher, hairdresser, cleaner, nurse and bin man right through to pilot, banker, computer programer and politician. They put themselves in order of who they thought made the most money, and then who they felt had the most worth in society. I watched them wrestle themselves into fascinating knots with these questions. Their ideas sprawled across many topics: economics, ethics, philosophy, sociology and politics. They had a unique disdain for specific jobs and a deep respect for others due to their culture and faith. One girl jokingly dismissed the career choice of musician or model as ‘haram’. This clash between my liberal, agnostic mindset and their Muslim/Somali upbringing was interesting to navigate. I think I did an okay job of honouring my point of view whilst focusing on learning more about theirs.
During this game, one of the older, more cheeky and opinionated girls in the group derided photographers and journalists that go to war-torn countries to take pictures, instead of doing something to help. A spirited conversation ensued as to whether these images contribute by spreading awareness or if they merely dehumanise the people in them. As mentioned in part 2 of this blog, this further consolidated why taking constant pictures or videos whilst running the workshops didn’t feel right.
Ultimately, these ‘groups’ we talk about in our meetings aren’t problems to solve, subjects of voyeuristic photographs or trophies of our liberal saviour complexes. We must remember this when we facilitate – only then will inclusion graduate from a tokenistic process to an integral value system. Whilst accepting that my motives as an artist can never be entirely altruistic, I am trying as much as possible to find a practice that is first and foremost responsive rather than instructive. It takes work, patience and a willingness to constantly unlearn. But through this unlearning, we’re more open to the wonders of the unexpected and tangential – where true art and progress live.