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Who knows what's going to happen? Martin O'Connor learns how to take a risk in participatory arts

Writer and theatre maker Martin O’Connor reflects on ideas of risk and play inspired by the December’s Creative Learning event from Creative Scotland. Sharing their aspirations and learning from a twelve-year residency project in St Helen’s, Artist Mark Storor and Emily Gee from Heart of Glass, redefined what it means to be risky in a participatory arts setting.

I think I’ve learned a lot about risk by attending the various events that Creative Scotland have delivered over the past year – whether it’s putting young people in charge of decision making, or inviting men and girls into the same performance space.

But none of these quite prepared me for the presentation by artist Mark Storor.

At the event Risk, Innovation and Experimenting in Participatory Arts, Storor strips down to a white t- shirt and boxers, and becomes gradually adorned with our own expectations, hopes and fears, written on shiny gift tags, until he resembles a human-sized Christmas present. Nevertheless he manages to underpin this act with a moving reflection: “We all took a risk but you were gentle and tender and it was enjoyable to be cared for.”

In this way he subtly shows us that risk doesn’t have to be a bold or challenging statement or provocation, but can be any stimulus that can “accelerate us into something extraordinary, that we don’t know what it will become.”

Standing there, vulnerable but empowered, Storor is the literal embodiment of what we all hope for when working with people in participatory setting - not overwhelmed by the weight of expectation, and not to be paralysed by fears. If we allow these feelings to dominate, he claims, we will be unable to achieve anything.

Heart of Glass

His latest project with Heart of Glass, Baa Baa Barbaric, Have You Any Pull? is a twelve-year residency in the town of St Helens. Producer Emily Gee outlines the need for the town to experience a different model of art making. St Helens, a northern post-industrial town, has one of the highest suicide rates and the lowest life expectancy for men in the whole of the UK. Framed by these statistics, Storor and Gee embarked on a journey with people to address this narrative.

They have paired men up with children in order for their stories to continue to be heard ‘beyond the grave.’ Men in St Helens die 10 years younger than average and so that means, in practical terms, any project which is to be meaningful and authentic would be required to run for around twelve years. It also means that, for the young people, the project would run for their entire school life.

This in itself is a risky prospect – the longer an arts project runs the more vulnerable it is to changes in staff, funding and participation. But Storor and Gee are able to deliver it through smaller units of work, where things change slightly so that no one project is definitive.

'From a number to a person'

The very second you begin to work with somebody, Gee notes, they go from being a number to being a person. And this project can transform them even further. The unemployed man can be the writer, the alchemist, or the entertainer. And the failing child can be the pioneer.

Indeed, rather than making assumptions about particular places and people, Storor and Gee allow time for stories to emerge, and the art follows on accordingly. “Everything we know we can learn from our family – good or bad. Everything I do is the ritual of everyday life because it tells us everything we need to know about relationships.”

There are no rules. The work starts from the beginning and the people around the table. There is always space to say that you don’t know what the outcome will be and again there’s a risk to that.

I found myself wondering where you begin to address these issues with six year olds, their parents and the school. Storor and Gee are also working with the police in St Helens to explore their own stories of dealing with suicide, and working with women who are widows of men who have taken their own lives.

It’s not easy stuff to contemplate, but as Storor puts it, “we will do something incredible, whatever it is, and who’s to tell us it’s not right? Nothing exists until we breathe life into it.” And I was glad of the reminder that we can’t ask someone else to take a risk if we’re not taking risks as artists ourselves.

This event is part of a series of events planned by Creative Scotland’s Creative Learning team taking place from November 2018 to March 2019. The events aim to inspire practice and support networking and skills development. For more information and to keep informed of events visit the Creative Learning events page.

This blog is based on the event Risk, Innovation and Experimenting in Participatory Arts, which took place at The Lighthouse, Glasgow on Monday 13th December 2018.