Blog Post

We make the road by walking


Chrissie Tiller on power, ownership and collaboration 

Heather Peak of Studio Morison recently took more than 50 local St Helens skaters on research trips to skate parks around the country. Photo Stephen King

‘I do not wish to be an artist: I only wish that art enables me to be.’ Noah Purfoy 19631

In a week that included Soul of the Nation at the Tate and Detroit at the cinema, coming across Purfoy’s suggestion that art was the one thing that might enable us ‘to be’ in this difficult world felt particularly apposite. 

The exhibition he is part of covers a period of American art about which I knew almost nothing. It is work that responds to the social and political unrest that marked the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s and ’70s.  Work that reflects the lives of its communities, creating with them as well as for them, often choosing to place itself on the streets rather than the ‘temple2’ or gallery. It is also work that responds to its own questions, ‘What is art? Who is it for?’ with the suggestion that, ‘it must develop from a necessity…answer a question…wake somebody up or give them a shove’4 – towards liberation.

These questions of ‘What is art?’, ‘Who is it for3?’, ‘Who gets to make it?’ and where it is made are questions that resonate through the Creative People and Places programme. Having just completed Power Up, a think piece on the sharing of power and decision-making as part of the national evaluation, they are also the questions I have been grappling with, together with CPP participants, artists, partners and teams, for the past few months. The wealth of evaluative material that already exists around CPP doesn’t make it easy to know where to start. But the recognition of the possibility to frame and contextualise the CPP journey within the wider context of participation, collaboration and cultural democracy began to feel important.  

Corita Kent’s piece Power Up5 and her ‘10 Rules for the Art School’, presented what felt like a fitting way in. An artist who believed it was impossible to separate art from life, ‘We have no art - we do everything as well as we can…,6’ she was also a woman, political activist and teacher. Finding herself firmly outside the dominant culture, she set up her own school, insisting on the need for artists to undertake in-depth research into the social, political and economic context of any situation they were working in. It was her thinking that led me to the 10 questions that inform Power Up. Some reflect issues already raised at CPP’s People, Place, Power conference, but a decision to ‘map’ the journey through the prism of Horton and Freire’s wonderful ‘We make the Road by Walking,’ inevitably moved it to questions of what we really mean by participation, reciprocity or collaboration in terms of sharing power. And to a focus on the impact of class, cultural capital, privilege and ethics.

Creative People and Places teams, critical friends and participants were invited to respond to the questions that seemed particularly important or relevant to them. Some of their responses were in written form, some the result of interviews, others emerged from practical workshops on the themes. A group of artists who had been involved in the CPP Northern Faculty of Social Art were also asked to make their own responses.

What emerged from all this research was a strong sense of people who feel they are still very much on a journey. No-one claimed to have arrived. At the same time, it was clear a good deal of learning about what this journey might be had taken place. As one director noted, it had involved moving from ‘assumptions we had made’ about ‘offering a gift’ to working with communities to create spaces where ‘participants’ could begin to see themselves as ‘co-creators’ and ‘initiators’ of programmes.

While some confessed the early drive had been to create events, build audiences and ‘deliver excellence’, many sensed they were moving to a place where they could work with their communities to create spaces where they could confront the ‘devastating social impact’ inequality is having on them. And, in doing so, could challenge the hierarchies endemic in the arts and cultural sector. Partly this was happening through choosing to work with artists, like Suzanne Lacy, who come from a long tradition of radical social practice, but also artists embedded in these communities and choosing to locate their work within them. It was also happening because people felt more confident to take the time needed to develop the kind of trust that ‘comes from being with people and listening to them’.

For others it was through deliberate choices about the art they were inviting people to be part of: resisting work that might be seen to merely ‘paper over the cracks’ and rejecting notions of needing to offer ‘easy or celebratory subjects’. Choosing instead to engage with projects that offer participants the opportunity to speak openly ‘about the events in our lives that shape who we are’. Or work like Heart of Glass’s 12-year Baa Baa Baric residency which looks at the negative life expectancy of men in St Helens head on.

I sometimes sense we prefer to ‘get on with things’ in the arts and cultural sectors, in the UK rather than engaging with the rich canon of critical thinking that surrounds the role of arts and culture in our lives. But, in a workshop looking at the ethics and values, CPP teams felt clear that we do need to begin to consider where the programme positions itself in ‘the wider ecology – in every sense’, not only recognising ‘structural privilege, the privilege of the system’, but also thinking ‘deeply about ownership’ and understanding ‘where we find our anchors’ and create work that ‘directly reflects, challenges and questions the politics of our times.

Whether the learning from these journeys can be reflected in systemic change at another level remains to be seen. What Power Up attempts to do is offer ‘trig points’ that might serve as markers along the path to greater cultural democracy. And to place the Creative People and Places programme within the wider social, political and cultural ecology it increasingly senses it can contribute to.    

Chrissie Tiller


[2] William T Williams quoted in The Guardian
[3] Lorraine O’Grady quoted ibid
[4] Elizabeth Catlett quoted Soul of the Nation exhibition Tate Modern

Image: Heart of Glass. Heather Peak of Studio Morison recently took more than 50 local St Helens skaters on research trips to skate parks around the country. Photo Stephen King