Lights Out

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If blog posting is anything to go by then it would first appear that this has been quite a quiet period in the project. In fact it has been anything but. Finishing the films, organizing the events, dealing with the logistics has eaten up an enormous amount of time and at this stage there is less time for contact with the people I have met on the project. On visiting the car park for a meeting with the council where we hope to project one of the films we walk past the area where people who are homeless often sleep, either alone or together in groups. While it is been quite empty for a while there was now an entire area covered with many people’s bedding etc. In the corner of the car park, just as the cars turn to exit, they sleep as best they can despite the engine noise and head lights passing over them.

 

The council officials, although sympathetic, were understandably exasperated that the group had begun to remove the fluorescent light bulbs from the lights positioned just above the sleeping area. This made me remember one man telling me that he longed for the luxury of his own light switch as when you are homeless you don’t even have the choice to sleep in the dark but rather, often sleep in areas which are lit 24/7. Obviously this little group had found their own way around the problem. I wonder sometimes, watching Ray Mears on television attempting to survive in the wilderness, do people realise just how much skill, effort and ingenuity it takes to survive on the hostile terrain of the streets.

 

At the moment my dilemma is whether to include surnames on the credits of the films. A few years from now will people want to be identified on a project connected with homelessness? And yet I realize, often people’s surnames are seldom mentioned in projects such as this, and that raises the question of identity all over again and whether or not using surnames once again adds to a hierarchy. I will discuss it with those who have contributed. It made my mind go back to evaluation forms. The drop in centre have their own, I had some prepared for this project, as was mentioned in the evaluation plans set out for funders. But when I introduced them to people during a particularly good session, the atmosphere changed. They didn’t complain as they were used to forms and they either filled them in to please me, or with trite comments which said what wanted to be heard, but to be truthful, I don’t believe they really revealed anything much and I never used them again.

Interestingly, ‘The Word on the Streets’ which is the overarching project name revealed itself to be ironic in a way, as many who find themselves homeless (though not all, by any means) find words difficult, as overlooked dyslexia or lack of school attendance due to a raft of problems such as living in care or family crisis are often all part of the toxic mix which creates a path to possible homelessness. At this stage in the project, it may be the last ‘post’ as such. So for now, it’s lights out on the blog as content will move to a new website will contain much of the work created over the project.

Legacy?

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‘What about legacy?’ an arts professional challenged me with early on in this project and it is something I have given a great deal of thought to. My engagement with the organisations and individuals I have been working with has grown organically and, like everything else built around the issues of homelessness, is not easily tied down nor can it be fitted neatly into any box, be that with numbers or outcomes.

 

Rather than create one finished participatory art piece, (although the films that will be projected are very much collaborative pieces), the intention has grown and crystallised to use the skills and time Howard and I have to invigorate and infuse the ongoing work in art and music that is already carried out at Alabare Place, the centre for the homeless, creating bridges between the two, and, through our support, help explore the potential areas these groups could move forward into.

 

And so, all this has led to a wonderful afternoon yesterday, selecting and framing art work with Ruth,  who runs a regular Thursday art group, for the centre’s first art exhibition, all the while having the pleasure of listening to Tim, the person that delivers regular music sessions, playing his guitar and singing with one of the artists involved in the show as we worked.  There is great excitement among those whose artwork is going up on display and it’s a real pleasure to see people totally focused on presenting their work as best as they can. For one particular person really struggling with incredibly difficult issues this has been an enormously positive goal. Initially, the exhibition was planned for a later date but when a last minute cancellation meant an opportunity came up to run it in a couple of weeks time we grabbed the opportunity as it seemed just the focus needed for this particular person. The title for the exhibition, ‘Starting from Scratch’, was chosen by participants from one of the songs composed with Howard, the poster design was developed by Ruth, working with a young man with a graphics background. The venue is the Waterstones city centre bookshop, a place where those who have work on display will feel confident enough and able to walk in off the street any time they like. The footfall will be huge and, once the show is over, the framing will mean that the art group can look forward to making regular exhibitions part of their activities, all of which underlines the understanding that their work is of value, that they have something to contribute, and, rather than feeling invisible, that they have  a platform from which to be heard.

 

Shortly I will be working with a few of these artists to help create their own online galleries as part of the Outside in programme, something which will give them an ongoing and growing platform for their work, while also allowing it to be considered for the organisations national and international exhibitions.

Maslow’s pyramid upended

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Some years ago when my work was largely focused on site-specific installation I undertook a residency with the Bemis Centre for Contemporary Art in USA.  There was an opportunity to base myself at ART Farm, a rural outpost in the vast prairies of Nebraska. When confronted with the realities of working in this seemingly infinite landscape however, I quickly discovered there that anything I could do had little impact on such a vast canvas.  And so I retreated to an area defined by a circumference of trees where I found that I could work more effectively within the boundaries provided.

 

And so I have come to understand it is, in some ways, with this project. There are many organisations and support networks for the homeless across this city. Much of the realities of homelessness, in truth, I have found, overwhelming. In order to make some sort of sense of the project I have focused our research and engagement down to mainly one Wiltshire centre, in addition to the small residential charity I was already connected with.  The centre is, what is rather idealistically termed, as a ‘dry house’ (‘no such thing exists’ as one member says) and serves a varied group of people, some currently living on the streets who have access at set times for meals, washing facilities etc, some in emergency beds in whatever space is available, some in temporary accommodation above the drop in and some who have progressed to more stable accommodation, but who still attend the drop in at meal times. Alternative shelters to a ‘dry’ venue, will allow free and open drug and alcohol use by those resident.  I have to admit I initially felt this was a step too far for me although in reality, many of the people I have come to know move back and forward between these support facilities.

 

Howard and I have had a fairly unique and privileged position in some ways. We have no staff badges, no security passes, we have no advice to offer, we do not reside behind a desk or behind a serving hatch. This, I think, has afforded us an opportunity to come alongside people at the place where they are, with no agenda attached. We have worked with people in varying situations from those who are managing reasonably well to those in the extreme stages of chronic addiction and, without exception,  I have had nothing but kindness and respect. Many of us will be familiar with Maslow’s famous ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, which lays out in pyramid form, how it is only when our basic needs of food, shelter, etc are met, and as we move through the more complex needs of safety, health, friends and family etc, that we can finally approach self actualization, the realisation of talents and creativity, fulfilling our need for respect and identity. Howard and I, however, have had the privilege of seeing people with next to nothing, struggling with the most brutalizing of addictions, soar for a moment in their individual creative expression, with a sense of achievement which turns Maslow’s theories, seemingly, on their head, and affirms that even in their given circumstances they have something which they, and only they,  can offer.

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Portrait in hot wax batik on fabric, worked into with felt tip and other media by a wonderfully talented man in temporary accommodation

 

 

Expect the Unexpected

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Very early on in this project, a staff member at the drop-in centre discussed how she had always wanted to give disposable cameras to those that attended and encourage them to document their day. This seemed like a good way to work with staff and get to know a little bit more about those attending in a fun and creative way, so a small number of cameras were purchased and given out, while names were very formally recorded by one young woman, resident in the temporary flats above, who was to oversee the procedure. To this day, only one of those cameras has found its way back to me. The others, who knows. Some say they are still working with them ( the 24-hour theme instantly discarded), others mention they are in the rooms, or in a backpack. Either way, they never materialise.

The flurry of excitement and joy as each person marked their names down and took the camera off to explore seemed to happily dissipate into some ethereal timescale where they will return someday but just not now. It was my first lesson that life for those who are homeless is a little different. I was warned at the outset that I may receive back, at best, dubious shots of private parts, at worst, graphic images of drug injecting. Neither proved to be the case. Instead my one returned roll of film, hesitantly developed and printed by our local Boots store, contained numerous, often very creatively arranged, shots of the public sculpture exhibition by Sophie Ryder, in the beautiful grounds of Salisbury Cathedral. The rest were a collection of the patterns and forms found in the architecture and the paving around the city, carefully selected by a very discerning eye.

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Whatever is discovered through this project, one thing is sure, always expect the unexpected. From the quietly spoken man who, despite circumstances can be heard confidently issuing the reading in the local church on a Sunday, to the very skilled mental health worker who, having found himself in crisis and  homeless is having to seek out the support he once provided, to the young man studying at the local college, attempting to build on an impressive batch of GCSE grades while surviving in the temporary accommodation above the drop in. There are no stereotypes, only people.

Highs and lows

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Such a journey! Attending the drop-in to distribute leaflets for the forthcoming days when Howard would attend with me, I noticed a photo on the noticeboard of someone who had drawn with me a couple of weeks before, requesting information as his body had been found in woods over Easter. He had been a vulnerable man, just 37, with many issues to deal with, that had sat with me a few times, drawing quietly and steadily, discussing his mother, his school days and how much he had liked to draw. I have included one of his little monoprints above in his memory. His name was Brendan.

The mood in the drop-in had been understandably low for quite awhile when I arrived with Howard to take up residence for two days, but what a two days! With drop in art activities drawing people over, conversations opened up possibilities again and again as Howard encouraged conversation to become lyrics, scribbling down notes as participants began to explore the pattern of their voices evolving into melodies. Howard then teamed up with the regular staff member who offers music activities and people began to move to the recording area and expand on their work with percussion etc

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In the drop-in area people coming in off the street sat down to draw and chat, one man lying on the floor next to the Perspex screen I had brought in, drawing in white marker and saying “I’m having fun, I’m happy– I don’t want to put the pen down to eat my dinner!”

Staff members danced out of the kitchen and round the table saying, “there is so much joy in the drop-in today”.  Five or so songs were written with Howard over the two days and will continue to be worked on. What a privilege to share in the process.

The Gaze

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Gaze – ‘to look steadily, intently, and with fixed attention’

This artwork above brought to mind the subject of the ‘gaze’ and the ethical labyrinth of power issues the artist traverses when focusing the camera lens on another person, especially one who is homeless.  I decided from day one in this project to stay well away from including people’s faces in any filming, in the hope that that might side step the issue. Recently though I sat down with two people who I know very well, both of whom have struggled through addiction and homelessness, to listen as they talked to me on a range of subjects, while also recording their conversation as part of research. As I am learning, the sheer act of having the recorder running, of essentially, as the definition says, of listening ‘steadily, intently, and with fixed attention‘ creates a powerful platform for shared intimacy, whether intended or not. It was not my intention to stray into sensitive territory, quite the opposite, but I am beginning to understand, the process of listening itself, has a power of it’s own. As always when I have interviewed people for films etc, I feel incredibly privileged to have had such personal moments shared, and the responsibility for their safe keeping is something which I do not carry lightly.

The artwork above was done by a young man who has recently come out of prison, registered as homeless, and is finding his way, with support, back into accommodation and (hopefully) work again. It’s a story I hear very often, and it’s frequency is troubling. Another man I met recounted his release from prison. He talked of being given the train fare back to his home town but nothing else. He found he was a considerable way from the train station, totally lost and spent hours walking, asking for directions, until he finally found his way through the help of a passer by who walked with him there. Whether such a subjective retelling was factual or not there was no doubt that the deep feelings of isolation and rejection for this man on his release were very real and have left their mark. Certain catalysts to homelessness arise again and again in conversations and without doubt, the aftermath to a prison sentence is a common one.

 

 

 

 

Marvin Gaye and the sailor

IMG_3235At the outset of this project I took my camera and mini projector to a car park I am familiar with. It was 6 AM, cold, and the car park was empty apart from a handful of cars, a man sweeping the floor of rubbish, and a man asleep beneath a duvet in an alcove. I chose this setting because a couple of years before I had spoken to another man, again under a duvet in the alcove, this time also under a cover of snow, that had blown in the sides of the car park and settled on his bedding.

In my projector I had some images of fabrics, quilts and family photographs. I played about projecting them onto the concrete pillars, walls and floor of the car park and photographing them, really, just experiencing the contrast of these deeply domestic fabrics and objects in this stark austere space. Film is a potent tool to bend and morph  truth.

Truth, and particularly truth in relation to identity and personal narrative, has been niggling away at my train of thought increasingly on this project. Two radio programmes have caught my interest and are worth a listen. The first, simply entitled Truth, digs into the history of the subject and the various philosophical ideas around it and was broadcast some time ago.
The second and much more recent broadcast covers an interview with the artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd discussing her new incarnation as Marvin. Performance artist and previous Turner prize nominee, this artist is not the first to take on an entirely new name (of which even her family and close friends must use) exploring the playful and more profound consequences that this conscious choice to enter into another persona facilitates.

For many who are homeless though, fluidity of identity and personal narrative is not safely fettered to some academic anthropological study or to experimental artistic endeavour but rather it’s unwieldy and unconscious evolution perhaps offers a coping mechanism to survive the state of rightly or wrongly perceived invisibility that people may experience.

As time has moved on I have come to realise that the individual stories I have come to associate people with, the gymnast who can walk up stairs on his hands, the sailor who single-handedly sailed the coast of America, the relative of the famous 50s movie star, the skilled stonemason, once millionaire businessman. Some will be true, some will have a grain of truth and some will be true perhaps only for the person themselves. In many ways, it seems unnecessary to know. I think am beginning to understand to hold the concept lightly.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04v59gz

Truth

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Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the philosophy of truth. Pontius Pilate famously asked: what is truth? In the twentieth century, the nature of truth became a subject of particular interest to philosophers, but they preferred to ask a slightly different question: what does it mean to say of any particular statement that it is true? What is the difference between these two questions, and how useful is the second of them?

ID Cards

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Identity, for most of us in the UK, is something we rarely think about unless we are unlucky enough to be the victim of identity fraud. But on a very personal level, who controls our identity? How much do we construct ourselves and how much is thrust upon us. Like the characters in the game of Happy Families above, how much of our identity is formed due to the family we are connected to, the position our spouse or partner holds, or our role within the community?

When these things fall away the loss of identity is often a source of real pain for those who are homeless and something over which they have little control. Often people strive hard to find a way to differentiate themselves from other people dealing with homelessness such as the man I have spoken with here. We discussed together publishing parts of our conversation and he is happy to have it included, hopefully to shed a little light on one individual, his thoughts on identity and how he interacts with the people he meets as a result. This is only a portion of his words as, being of Irish Romani origin as he himself described his background, there was not the space on my recording device to hold all the words he had to share with me!

Most of the general public never get to see the other side of the homeless person. They only get to see the person sitting in the doorway with the blanket wrapped around them looking down. But people go past me though and they see me with my two mobile phones, going back and forward and they think ‘he’s got too much to do’, but I listen to music, I’ve got over 3000 tunes and still adding to it,so I’m just going to Costa and people think I’m just a backpacker that’s left his job or something,you know what I mean.

I like to study psychology. I’m trying to do a case study at the moment, basically I just sit in Costa and watch people trying to work out why people do the things they do. That fascinates me. Sometimes it’s easy to work out but other times it’s hard, you can give 10 people identical tasks to do and they will all do them differently because of their history, because of their upbringing, it all influences all of us. Most people are living in the moment, they do not stop to think why they do a particular thing in a particular way, to reflect on it but I do. Most people live life through negative emotions, not positive ones, I see people when I get up in the morning in my sleeping bag and their faces are so negative, and I say why not smile, it’s a choice, why not?

Identity?

You ain’t got none. When you’re on the streets you basically don’t have one, the only time we’re ever given an identity as an actual human being is when someone comes over and talks to us, but you will get people that will see you and purposely cross over the road, walk away, cross back over, I have seen people giggling just because I’m in the doorway, I look at them and I’m laughing – I’m thinking you’re more screwed up than me, I’m more streetwise than you and ultimately I’ve got more to live for than you have cause you’re only one pay cheque or maybe two pay cheques away from being exactly where I am and you may not survive. But I know how to survive and I’ve got more than you’ll ever have in a lifetime. They see one person drinking or taking drugs on the street and they label every single homeless person with that and that’s diabolical.

I grew up just over the border in Ireland as a Romani Gypsy, Catholic as well but I changed my faith to Buddhism because of my background. I hated everyone that wasn’t from my area when I was young, the English, anyone that was outside my bubble, I hated them but as time went on and I had to start fending for myself, I ran away and then I turned round and said to myself – we are all human beings, we all breathe the same air, we all need the same air to survive even though you can’t see it and something clicked in me and I picked up my first book. The first book I ever picked up was by Carl Rogers on psychotherapy and it got to the case studies between client and therapist about what it means to be a human being and what does that mean to you as an individual and I began searching and I’ve been searching ever since. And why we are so quick to judge the other person when they don’t look like we look, they don’t do what we do. Why? 

That’s what I found about being homeless, they look at a homeless person, they stare at them up and down and think ‘Well he’s a junkie, he’s an alcoholic and him, well, I’m not so sure about him (that makes them nervous and wary). I get by myself because I look so clean, I keep clean, and have a shave and a shower (in the drop in) and I’m sitting there with my headphones on blanking everyone, but if someone comes up and talks to me I’ll give them the acknowledgement but otherwise I generally won’t say hello because I know that if I say hello to anyone walking past the first thing they’ll think is ‘What does he want? Because we are homeless, they all think that we want something, I don’t want no money from them, if they want to give me money that’s up to them, that’s their own decision, I’ll take it, I’d be stupid not to, but preferably I’d much rather just have a conversation. I just want to talk to them to see what’s going on in their lives to see how they are doing, to make them laugh.i just want people to have a good time.

I have been set on fire twice, I have been stabbed once, I have had bottles thrown at me by teenage kids (that’s an occupational hazard that one), I’ve been urinated on, I’ve nearly been shat on – by the general public, just because I’ve been sleeping in a doorway. They’ll do it while I’m asleep, they won’t dare do it while I’m awake but as soon as I talk to them, as soon as I get to know the person (and I can do that quite quickly) it’s different.  After studying psychology and psychotherapy I make it my business to say hello to people now and then, to try and use the right tone of voice to draw them over, and it usually works.

At this point he told us about the man he met last night and had a conversation with, who invited him back to his home and who he played PlayStation with for a few hours, drank some beer together, and slept on the floor. This is one of many encounters with strangers who have taken the time to talk. In some ways I wonder who really has lost their identity. This man may have no possessions to speak of but I daresay is known simply by his nickname in many, many towns across the country to many people. In contrast many elderly people sit isolated in their homes, their names known to relatively few. It appears that in some sense, the power to bestow identity on, or foster a sense of self in, others, rests with all of us.

 

 

 

Ourselves to own

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It is a critical part of this project that people retain their autonomy over their own image and that that they produce. When you own so little, it is of extra significance. Those that attend shelters and drop ins etc are actually often no stranger to the camera lens. They tell their stories many times. More than once I have come across people who have taken part in BBC documentaries, interviews and even been parachuted into elaborate corporate conferences to share their story and their words.

But this project is not about that. Rather it is about spending time with people sharing my work with them, enabling them to create work alongside me and letting each inspire the other. Where people do feature in photographs such as the images that are shown here, they have worked together to both create the images and take the photographs themselves.  The words they have selected are from their own musical compositions, for this particular group, in response to the supportive living they are receiving. The image of the tree, a reminder of home in Somalia.

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Give me a year

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Above is the sign I put up the first time I came to the drop-in centre. It is as much a message to myself as it is to others.

Give me a year, give me 10 years, give me a lifetime. To begin to look into a life is to open a box within a box within a box. It would take a lifetime to witness to a lifetime.  I have one year. I am meeting people with both harsh and extraordinary lives. Short lives often. A week ago, people in the drop-in centre were recalling the young woman who, a few days before had been found dead in the multi-storey car park, just hours after the shoppers had filled their boots and driven away. She was in her 30s and had been in the drop in earlier, chatting, having her shoelaces tied, getting on with her day. Addiction and homelessness are bedfellows, not always, but often.

On the streets time seems to have a different quality. It expands and contracts simultaneously. It is measured by the opening of soup kitchens, the train ride to the next destination. Whole decades are lost through addiction. When those in rehabilitation meet families again, to their surprise the children are now adults, the adults are old, the old are gone.

Very few have ever owned a passport yet many of the people I meet have travelled to more destinations than the most globetrotting among us will do in a lifetime, criss-crossing the country many times, their names known in many places. One man created artwork on a project in Manchester only to find it resurface on the walls of a gallery in Canterbury some years later. Agency on such output is ephemeral,  given up easily. I’m not sure through choice, through disinterest or through acceptance of the way it has to be. Why hold onto artwork when you own no wall on which to hang it?