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Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Message in a Bottle - Workshopping in a Pandemic

Frances Judge, Making Conversation, Manchester Art Gallery

This is a reflection on my work as a freelance artist delivering workshops this year for the adult Learning, Early Years and Health and Wellbeing Programs in Manchester Art Gallery's Learning team  and for people with mental health needs at TLC Art Project The Learning team and TLC are doing incredible work, initiating and running multiple projects under the most difficult circumstances.

At the start of the year my role as a freelance artist looked completely different. In essence my job was to gather people together in gallery and community settings and Sure Start centres. These spaces were a place of exchange; exhibitions, artworks, materials, debate, stories and discovery. They were tactile, messy, busy and vibrant spaces, each one a shared experience of art and a route to togetherness that we will never take for granted again.

These physical spaces disapeared over night in March, the gallery's exhibitions and artworks retreated into it's website, mounds of materials, untouched, behind cuboard doors. And of course, the people were gone, there was such silence.

'Penny the Cat', Jonathan, TLC Art Project

Social isolation is not new, though I work with large numbers of people with very different lives across multiple projects, it is an issue that crops up repeatedly. The reasons for this isolation are many and complex, for example; becoming a parent for the first time when your family live in a different country, being agoraphobic, or waiting years for your new guide dog and having to rely on friends to guide you outside of your home.

Covid brought isolation for everyone, in a way we could never have imagined. How could I reach people now, without the space, artworks, materials, gesture, touch?

Postcard Project, Tony, Making Conversation, Manchester Art Gallery

One route was technology, making films, zoom and social media. Like most people, I have dabbled in these this year, however this has not always been the right route. Many of the adults I work with don't use technology for economic reasons, disability or personal preference. And everything the babies and early years children needed was physical; drawing tools, paint, reflective surfaces, textured fabric...We learned early on from our Sure Start partners that some families lacked even the basics such as paper and scissors.

My working method changed to delivering workshops by post, email and over the phone. To supply materials, we formed a production line, filling the gallery's atrium and sending them out in boxes to hundreds of families I may never see, a message in a bottle.

Materials for babies born in lockdown, Manchester Art Gallery in collaboration with Sure Start

My approach to workshops has always been that they should be participant led, a two-way conversation. Ideally each workshop is a space I make which gently nudges people towards their own ideas, making and discovering. I plan a workshop and over the years perhaps come to know how people may respond, but really most of the work happens in the moment, it is about noticing, gesturing and encouraging the people in front of me. This year, without people, I found myself working blind.

I shifted to working by memory, having to place faith in my previous experience. Materials chosen for babies and young children that I know other children responded well to in workshops past, films suggesting how to explore materials or mindfully make marks were 'performed' by imagining people beyond the camera. Positive feedback has come back out of the ether I am delighted to say, but I would have loved to have been there the moment each of those boxes of materials were opened, or when the first marks were made...

Music drawing, Jonathan, TLC Art Project

One place where I have felt able to work with people in a way smilar to the call and response of a 'normal' workshop, is through phone calls. Phone calls were initially simply a necessity, I needed to audio describe artworks and workshop plans to blind and visually impaired people who live alone, or phone people who do not use, or have access to, technology. However, I have come to favour the phone calls as a remote workshop method. A phone call allows for an immediate two -way conversation, less self conscious than zoom, a perfect combination of intimacy and non-visual anonymity.

These conversations can, and do, meander in interesting ways. We begin with artworks I have described or printed out and sent through the post, or an artwork the person I'm speaking with has made and described to me. Inevitably questions, stories, memories, the things and people we miss, all tumble out in response to those initial artworks, taking us further and further away from the start of the conversation where my question "How are you?" is rarely met with a positive response. Art takes us somewhere, sometimes it brings us face to face with our feelings and fears about the pandemic and at others it takes us somewhere funny, tender, beautiful. And I say we, because I am not a machine, these points of contact have been beneficial to me too.

Anonymous, TLC Art project

There are of course disadvantages to working one to one over the phone too, removing the framework of a physical setting and other people, means that lines can become easily crossed, and it can be emotionally draining. Something I always have to keep an eye on. However, for me, the benefits far outweigh this. I am able to reach people who are not only bound to their houses temporarily beacuse of Covid restrictions but long term, because of disability and mental health issues. I am able to tailor workshops to an individual's specific needs and intersts, to go on a significant journey with them in a way you can't when working simultaneously with a group of people. Gaining such detailed understanding of different people's relationships with and responses to art, feels like both a luxury and a place of learning for me.

Every call has to end and more often than not it ends with "when will we be back at the gallery", "When will Grovsner Street be open again?", "I really miss everyone, how long do you think it will be"?

Each workshop is a community, one person on the end of the phone can do a lot but can never replace that.

Almost a year and so many people have been reached by our work in the learning team at Manchester Art Gallery and the TLC Art Project, technology, post, phone calls and boxes of materials. The strangest, hardest and most revealing of times to be doing this, I wonder what we will take from it when we have had the time to take it all in, reflect, and see what we have achieved?

Thank you to the following for initiating and running these projects, for the work, for the support and for what we have been able to give, in spite of it all! Katy McCall Early Years Manager, Kate Day/Nicola Colclough Adult Learning Managers and Louise Thompson Health and Wellbeing Manager at Manchester Art Gallery and Alison Kershaw and Rae Story at the TLC Art project.

Annonymous, Making Conversation, Manchester Art Gallery

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