“To change the conversation, we have to change who is part of it”

Social Making with Social Distance

Social Making with Social Distance

Hia I’m Kitt. I’m based in beautiful Newcastle upon Tyne. I describe the way I work as: mess making as social glue.  I’m a person who does making alongside other people.

Social Making with Social Distance: care- filled,
not careful, lessons learned in lockdown


This type of collaborative, social / sociable way of working gets called a lot of things: community art, craftivism, participatory practice, socially engaged art… I’m not really that bothered about what title we give it: I love doing it and I think it’s an important creative, civic, political force in the world. Two things that are vital in my work are:

 “Creative Intimacies” (connecting with people through and for creativity), and, Mess.

In my experience, socially engaged work is physically, conceptually, socially, emotionally, joyfully messy. The mess is where the most fun, interesting, useful stuff happens; where people can use creativity to nurture connections, to forge understandings and enthusiasms, solve problems, and create change. It can also be exhausting, draining, confusing. Finding and making tools, systems and in-roads to collaboratively navigate, gently tidy and fiercely value this mess, is one of my favourite things to do. Over the last 4 years sharing these tools has become an increasingly important part of my practice, even (or perhaps especially) this year.

For me, the 1st UK COVID19 lockdown brought with it an immediate halt to most of my projects. The initial impact was: no collaborating, no creative focus, no income. All pretty challenging personally, professionally, creatively. The central creative challenge for me was:

“How the hell do we “do” social making in a socially distanced world?”

In May, I was very fortunate to receive Arts Council England, Emergency Response Funding which I used to start “ArtConfined and Feral Futures”. A project which set out to scrummage around in questions about how participatory / community / socially engaged art and creativity might happen with social distance.

The project was co-created through collaboration with 12 co-authors ranging from 8 years old to 71 years old, all based in the North East of England and with a wide variety of life experiences. We connected through online video conferencing, telephone calls, postal art and socially distanced walks and photo shoots. Since May, the project has also been supported through commissions from Durham University, Norfolk Street Art (Sunderland) and disabled artist led organisation Disconsortia.

I’ve felt very emotionally (and physically) tender and vulnerable this year. I didn’t feel confident to go out and find brand new folk to work with. Though meeting new people is often one of the great joys of the work I do, it can be complicated and stressful. I didn’t have the energy or fortitude for it. I realized that I wanted to use creativity to build bonds with people who I want to know better and to stay connected to those I already treasure. So, the co-authors of Art Confined are people with whom I already had connections (some developing for over a decade, others a few months old). People who, during lockdown, were (like me) thinking about art, wishing for change in the world and missing people.

Co-creation looked very different to the way it did before Covid.

We were all acutely aware of the colossal, world-wide, lightning-fast change COVID19 was bringing about. Change prompted by care. Care for ourselves. Care for our families, for our communities. For human-kind. This extended to people thinking about care for non-human animals and for the planet we inhabit. As we drastically re arranged our lives, in order to look after one another, we kept thinking- "Isn’t this great? Our capacity for change." And also… "isn’t this depressing?" That it takes over a million deaths. It takes the imminent threat of incapacitating illness (to ourselves, and every person we know) for us to make these changes. And isn’t it atrocious that countless people are completely excluded from the “new way of things”? The endemic and structural inequalities of the world seemed more starkly illuminated than ever. The impacts incalculable and endless.

“Context is half the work”, a guiding principle of the Artist Placement Group (a UK based collective of artists interested in the social and political functions of creativity, who organised placements within public institutions during the 1960s and 70s).  For me, the context of a global pandemic has certainly been (at least) half the work. It has led to projects being driven by the principle: “Care-filled, not careful”.

Three ways I've noticed the care -filled- ness has manifested are:

  • NUMBER1: Because of the pandemic the project was completely, necessarily built on ideas about safety and mutual care. Being in extreme global circumstance made us all focus on this. An essential element of the project was our discussion about this. Pre-COVID, I found, in some community arts projects, a hierarchy of care developed: assumptions were made about the types and amounts of care people might need. This has not happen in any of the projects I’ve been part of, so far, during this pandemic.

  • NUMBER2: Because we couldn’t physically travel to get resources, we were very frugal and very careful about the resources we did use. This automatically made the project more environmentally sustainable. The lack of resources also made us aware of what we could achieve with minimal materials. Leading to discussions and decisions that will have a lasting impact on individual and collective care for our wider environments.

  • NUMBER3: When “meeting” via video conferencing the meetings were more accessible, to some of us, than face to face meet ups. People particularly mentioned increased accessibility due to limited time, caring responsibilities, travel costs, and mobility. These meetings also were less accessible to some of us. Some people had ethical reasons for not wanting to use specific platforms. Some people are less used to using the technology or find it complex to access physically. Some of us had concerns about safety relating to extractive technologies and data sharing. BUT, because we were all talking about this,all the time, and trying to find ways to support one another, making the project accessible and creating other points of contact, became paramount.

All. Very. Positive. Yes?

Erm… well, largely. However, all this care can lead to people feeling constrained. Not always great for creativity. Not great for mess.

This not-great-for-mess-issue: I’ve come to call it the “Lunch allows for accidents challenge”. It refers to the common meeting place of “lunchtime”, or a tab break, a walk to the bus stop, or clearing up after a session of creative abandon. These contexts, with a vague purpose, flexible time frame/ “outcome”, allow for people to chat informally. To metaphorically bump heads. A common comment was that this informal group chatter is actually vital to collaborative modes of creating, it provides an opportunity for unexpected connections, disagreements and subsequent understandings, and excitements. It wasn’t happening online - everything was very focused. Very MANAGED. A lot of people mentioned this in relation to: a lack of risk, or accidents, in the projects. And all that accidental, messy, grainy, awkward, off-kilter stuff…? We missed it.

I was really lost for a while, having no idea how to find ways of making The Mess, happen. I spent a lot of time talking to other artists about this challenge, particularly Dan Russell. Dan and I collaborate on a variety of creative stuff, combining our shared interest in many things but, particularly relevant to this: making/thinking about and reflecting on where the intimacy and empathy is in digital/ virtual spaces. One of the projects we work on is called Social Practice Surgery. It sets out to nurture mutual support for socially engaged artists. It seemed that a very important set of tools for the surgery during 2020 would be “Togetherness Tools”-  a series of techniques for and ideas about, being close whilst socially distant. Through creating and using some of these: ways around the “Lunch Allows For Accidents Challenge”, emerged.  Slowly. OH, so slowly. It seemed possible to introduce opportunities for risk and failure and mess, into digital spaces. It is very hard. I think it takes much longer to get messy online than face to face. But it is possible.  “Togetherness Tools” are ever growing and changing. If it sounds like something you might be interested in, you can find / add to/ challenge / change/ share some tools here:

Over the last 9 months, some of the most profound, most emotionally, ideologically, creatively intimate experiences I have had: happened, with distance. Through these experiences I’ve cried and smiled and blushed. I felt full of humility and confident beyond words. I’ve played and argued and fallen in love.

What did we do to conjure up these experiences and feelings? What helped us along the way?

I’ve found the stuff, most useful for creating points of contact, is the same with distance as it is are Right Up Close:

Focus, humor, empathy, mess, curiosity, vulnerability.

Pockets-of-time, built into activity. Pauses for thinking and processing. Listening to understand, not just to immediately respond.

These are the things that have supported groups I am part of to make alongside one another, share ideas, create support. Allowing us, even in quiet confinement, to collectively dream of and create wild art, wild change, deep care. During 2020, I’ve realised that care (for humans, non-human animals and the environment) is my focus.

That’s what I do “social art” for. It’s what I’ve always done social art for, actually. But now, I have an intensely sharp clarity about this.

For me, as I consider what my practice might look like in 2021 and beyond, there are two questions I’m  asking myself:

  • ONE: What can I immediately do, as an individual maker, to keep building on this stuff I’ve learned?

  • TWO: How can I work alongside organisations and institutions, using social practice to build care, access and environmental sustainability into their work?

I expect (and hope) the answer to these questions will change and grow as my work does, but just now the following seem important:

Point of contact Pick n Mix: I’m building choices about how and why we connect into projects. Everyone involved is collectively interrogating the type of connecting that is best suited to the situation, the people, the purpose. What is most useful, most accessible, most creative, and most fun? It might be video conferencing, but it could also be chatting on the phone, walking and talking, postal art, Minecraft…

I’m Allotment-ering. I’m growing projects from the resources I already have to hand. Local / recycled materials and accessible tools .

I’m building a beat of pauses and reflection (not just into every project), but into every workshop, every meeting. I’m normalizing silences in workshops and meetings. Time to think. Time to breath. Sarah Li (the producer I work with) and I have started working to a standard meeting agenda and now, our weekly production meetings always start with a care check in. Every week, we take time to think about the wellbeing of everyone involved in projects and to question if the structure of a project is supporting care-filled behaviours. We also build time into projects to consider the environmental impact of what we’re up to.

Planning more long term. Thinking and doing more widely- I’ve started developing a project called (en)SHRINE. This uses some of these principles and tools to build creative intimacies within organisations and intuitions. Strategies for finding, developing and sharing: focus, humor, empathy, mess, curiosity and vulnerability. Tools for growing creative intimacies with everyone involved in what those organisations do- staff and volunteers, people who visit / audiences/ constituents/ communities. Through developing and valuing – really treasuring- those connections I think we can build a base on which to discuss, and ultimately change, organisational structures and policies. Re-viewing and re-forming established ways of doing things to centre care, access and environmental sustainability. Growing, not just individual projects, but whole organisations that are less careful, more care- filled.

PLEASE NOTE: I’m proudly dyslexic. I have support to write texts so that they can (hopefully) be understood by other people. This support, very resolutely, very actively, does not strip my word-based idiosyncrasies from the writing I do. If you feel interested in what I’m saying, but find my writing style challenging, please email me at lady_This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. so we can organise another way of sharing ideas.

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