The art is in the detail

Amy Kennedy and Laura Spring

Artlink’s Ideas Team project explores creative responses to the everyday experiences of people with profound learning disabilities. Its aim is to painstakingly progress awareness of the uniqueness of the individual's world through a series of innovative artworks informed by interpreting and reinterpreting often complex responses. The project will culminate in 2018 in a large scale exhibition and conference.

Artlink’s Creative Director Alison Stirling explains the thinking behind their approach…

A learning curve (arching over 3 days)

Just before Xmas in 2014 we commissioned writer & curator, Kirsten Lloyd to write an essay about The Ideas Team. It's a smart essay in that it describes (and questions) 'care' within contemporary arts practice and its impact on artists practice. It's an extremely clever essay in that it places these arguments within an alternate world, one in which care, involvement, participation and community have an altogether different meaning.

By this I mean that the people involved rely on others for every part of their lives, from what they eat, to what they wear, to what they do or don't do, to how they go to the toilet. It's overwhelming on so many levels just how reliant people are. And as a result, how little they have the opportunity to experience different things. Just how intense/mundane their everyday experiences are. The simple, overwhelming fact that other people's responses to their disabilities are often what prohibit their development.


I am sitting talking with Steve Hollingsworth, one of the Artlink Ideas Team artists and we are having a conversation about art. Whether the work that we do with people with profound learning disabilities is in fact art or an odd form of social work. We meet regularly. Talk over his project, look at his work, discuss direction and plan for the coming weeks. Sometimes our conversations hit a dead end and at other times the conversations take us in some inspiring directions. This morning it's enjoyable. We come to the conclusion (again) that the art is all in the detail. In the tiniest of responses. In what is made as a result of taking the time to determine what a slight hand movement or a flutter of an eye lash actually means. 

Later on that day

I'm editing a press release. Getting flustered. I want to word the press release in such a way that I ensure that the people involved are respected for what they are doing. I don't want it to sound like something from the social work department nor do I want it to read like an overly conceptual art treatise. I'm stuck.

What is the work about? Is it about agency? Is it about finding ways to encourage the individual to gain a voice, to make change? Perhaps. I'm not sure.

I leave it.


I go to an event in Glasgow. I'm thinking about level playing fields, where all involved contribute on their terms.

The event happens. I only see part of it. What I see is a form of social choreography, people coming together, celebrating. Someone is shouting out what the participants are to do.

I'm on one. I'm back with the Ideas Team. How do you know there is equality within the development of ideas? How do people contribute even although they don't know what they are contributing too? What's equal about that?


I'm thinking about a time many years ago when a group of activists arrived in a day centre. They came to empower. They did. People started shouting about what they needed. They wanted change. Everyone listened. And then, after two weeks, the activists left. The people continued to shout and everyone stopped listening. The impetus had gone. The power imbalance returned.

Sunday evening

The Ideas Team. The structure was devised many years ago to establish a more equal playing field. A structure which relied on everyone involved making it work. Which ensured that the benefits of taking part are always felt by the people at its centre. The people at the centre being people with profound learning disabilities.

It starts with a simple achievable aim, identified in response to the person at the centre. Everyone in the team must sign up to it.

To explain. The Ideas Team will only progress if each of the people taking part stay involved. That's the artist, care worker, parent, engineer whoever is needed to realise the idea. The idea gathers impetus over a long amount of time as each of the groups members pitch in, pushing the ideas forward.

The more they work together, the more the person at the centre benefits; the clearer the idea the more the person at the centre benefits; the more artists and thinkers are involved, the more the person at the centre benefits; the more time they spend learning from each other, the more the person at the centre benefits.

Within 'socially engaged' arts practice it's important that we take responsibility for what we seek to do, the impact it has on its participants, now and in the future. We therefore need to take the time to learn from each other, to make mistakes, to listen, to work our way through a lifetime of prejudices and presumptions. It's integral.

Sunday nights are always a time to think about the coming week. To worry about what's ahead.

I think we are making headway. The art is in the detail. 

In the coming years we have our work cut out for us but I know it's worth it.

View some images from the Ideas Team project below:

  • Image courtesy of Laura Aldridge and Laura Spring  
  • Image courtesy of Steve Hollingsworth and Jim Colqhoun  
  • Image courtesy of Kelly Dobson  
  • Image courtesy of Wendy Jacob  

    More info

    Established in 1984, Artlink is an arts and disability organisation based in Edinburgh. For more information go to and

    A copy of Uncommon Ground can be download via ISSUU here.