Ruth Ben Tovim: “Transition is a participatory arts practice”
By rob hopkins 21st April 2015
Ruth Ben Tovim is the creative director of Encounters Arts. As a professional artist and consultant, she has used the transformational power of the arts to work with thousands of people over the last 20 years. She is one of the stars of Lucy Neal’s new book ‘Playing for Time’, so we started by asking for her reflections as our first interviewee who has actually seen it, both on the book and on why it matters.
“I’m still on a high a week after seeing the book and holding a copy at the book launch, which really felt like a line in the sand, a real key moment in the coming together of a huge amount of work that’s happening at the edges, at the margins, outside of what you might call the mainstream arts institutions, although some of them are connected to that. But really crossing boundaries, crossing territories in different contexts.
To see this body of work, these 50-60 contributors, to see it in this absolutely beautiful book – it is one of these things that you want to spend time with. I want to give it to absolutely everyone I know. It’s this really big, thick, chunky, beautiful visual book that you dive into. What I love about it is that it’s a bit like the practice itself, it’s quite lateral and you dive in and it’s not one single author for one single page.
On most pages you’ll find two or three references and there’s Lucy Neal’s delicate crafting and weaving of the story of this practice throughout it. Then in the pages about land or body or streets, there are many different voices and approaches, so it’s a real treasure chest, the book. And really inclusive. I just think it’s absolutely beautiful and it’s a real marker, a real moment.
Personally, for me, having been involved from the beginning with the book and also sometimes it can be quite lonely doing this work that we do on the edges. It’s really rich and fertile, but it can be quite lonely, or you can think – I’m right out there on a coal face and pioneering something. But to see it in print, it really feels like this is seen.
It feels like something that has been there is suddenly brought into technicolour, so it feels like this practice is saying “here it is”. So I feel really proud and really excited, it feels like now is the beginning.
Can you tell us a bit about what you do, some examples of the kind of work that Encounters do?
We deliver projects, creative projects, that often at their heart bring people together to talk about who they are, their experiences, their memories, their stories about a place very often. A lot of the work we do is rooted in a place. It brings people together to, in some way, re-imagine or explore who or how they might want to be in the world in the future.
That, in the form that they take, is a range of different participatory projects that have different themes attached to them, so we tend to deliver work that focuses on the food and environment, some other projects and work that are more around voice, people having a voice, sharing their voice, having something to say, and a body of work which is more focused on life transitions.
So for example, in a food and environment strand of work, we’ve got a few projects that are live, but one project that we’ve done quite a lot over the years is A Little Patch of Ground, a food growing and performance project that we’ve done eight or nine times in different cities with different communities across the UK. This is a project that I deliver in collaboration with Anne-Marie Culhane who’s an associate of Encounters and a colleague of mine.
This project started with us trying to explore how we might respond to issues around climate change and resource depletion, issues around food. So A Little Patch of Ground brings together an inter-generational community to grow a garden together and to make a performance together about their feelings and thoughts about where they live, their thoughts about the environment. So we run in parallel this kind of food growing and performance making and community building.
Something we’re working on at the moment in Torbay is called Museum of Now, a collaborative project with a team of Encounters associates who are working with a whole range of different community groups to make objects, talismans, through making with waste material and also with local material and local traditions of making with a whole range of different groups of people, who through making talk about what’s it like to live now and what are the social and global and environmental issues that are happening in your life. But doing that in quite a subtle or a gentle way, so it’s really trying to meet people where they’re at through making. If you were making an object about this time, then what object would you want to make? It becomes a tool for a conversation.
Some of the projects we do are around creative consultation and engagement. We get commissioned, it could be by a local authority, it could be a community group or a voluntary sector group, to devise a process, often a physical space where we invite people to take part in leaving their thoughts or ideas through what we call a series of ‘invitations to join in’ that allow people to add a trace of themselves and leave their thoughts about where they live often, or this issue. Recently we did a whole creative consultation programme again in Torbay looking at ageing, a project called Ageing Well, where we worked with 100 volunteers and about 1000 people to ask them about their experiences of ageing.
This was then turned into a bid to the Lottery, and Torbay have just secured the bid for £6 million in order to look at how do we age well. It’s like that seed of conversation out in the community brings people together and then it can go in a number of different ways. We do quite a lot of work like that.
We’re also working on the Atmos Project which is great to be working where we live. The Atmos project is in Totnes, and that’s a former Dairy Crest factory producing milk. It’s been derelict for 7 years and the community led a campaign to try and bring it into community ownership, which they were successful in doing towards the end of 2014. Then we worked with the Totnes Community Development Society as part of the Atmos Totnes project to set up and take over some of the former Dairy Crest offices and create a hub, a consultation hub, an information hub in three or four different rooms that about 2000 people came into to leave their thoughts and their visions about the town, and that’s ongoing.
So in the ‘voice’ work, that’s about catalysing ideas and opinions, and then this last bit of work, the ‘life transitions’, over the years we’ve done stuff with boys and young men, taking them outdoors, really looking at what is it to be a young person, a young man in the world at this time. We’re doing a piece with grandmothers at the moment because I’ve just become a Grandma and I want to do explore a piece bringing grandmas together from quite different geographical areas to really talk about what is the world that we’re not going to see, and what are we passing on to our children.
It’s a range of work which is sometimes commissioned, which has quite a clear outcome, and then sometimes it’s artist led where we’ll get funding or we’ll work with the community to do it. But all of it is about being socially or ecologically engaged work.
We talked to John Jordan. He talks about having an ‘Insurrectionary Imagination’. To what extent do you see what you do as revolutionary? What depth of change do you see your work in Encounters trying to enable or bring about? In the book, there’s a spectrum from those working for the overthrow of neo-liberal capitalism, to other people who just want to connect people to nature. Where do you see yourself on that spectrum?
I want deep change. We need to transform deeply how we’re living, the culture of community, how we see ourselves. I’m very inspired by Joanna Macy’s spiral of change. I feel passionate that the industrial growth system is crumbling and falling apart, and is destroying our culture and our society and our planet. I absolutely want to be part of the transition to making a life-sustaining society. That drives every single thing that I do as an artist.
In order to make that change, what is it that needs to happen inside ourselves to feel part of that change? So quite a lot of the work we do is around the Macy spiral, around this sense of coming from gratitude. How can we acknowledge what we have, and we might do that through a project, through an invitation in a shop, through an activity that we’re always just – let’s check in, what can we be thankful for?
Joanna Macy talks about that, the ‘radical act of gratitude’. If we really look at being grateful for what we have, then we realise that there’s so much that we don’t need. That’s quite counter to the system that tells us how much we want to be in a state of needing. So that’s revolutionary, I feel, to really create a space where people can be thankful for what they have.
Most of the projects we do have that element of despair work or honouring the pain of the world, or how can we really look at some of the things that are uncomfortable. How can we really accept and acknowledge that we are connected to what’s happening, and we might do that through all sorts of activities or exercises depending on the group? It could be quite gentle approaches, some of it could be taking people out into nature, but for us that would be in order to try and explore a sense of my inter-connectedness or my identity.
Quite a lot of the work we might do is around identity, actually what is your ecological identity and how do we guide people to that. Or through showing films or videos or conversations, just opening that space to say “look, this is what’s happening in the world”. Quite a lot of our projects are awareness raising, but it’s not on its own. It’s coming through a whole process of being productive like growing or making or creating at the same time as looking at the destruction that’s happening.
And then on that spiral of ‘Seeing with new eyes’ asking what am I seeing afresh? Often in a project, there might be that space to vision, to learn, to observe, to reflect. And then always I am interested in how do we as individuals and as communities start to look at what is my role, what could my role be? And that people are co-creating that. It’s about a collaboration.
For me, all that’s quite radical and revolutionary in that sense. What I’ve seen too often is that if there’s a didactic, singular focus then it marginalises other voices and you create a polarity again in that situation. So I feel very strongly about change, but I feel that meeting and supporting people where they are and that people need to be determining the changes that they want to see, and that everyone’s at different levels.
Continuously I’m questioning all the time – is this right? Is this the calling right now? Or how can I have the most impact action? It can keep me awake at night, but I suppose it’s always self, others, wider world, is the area of change and transformation that all of our projects would look to cultivate.
Lots of Transition groups will hopefully read this, and some Transition groups incorporate an arts perspective into what they do, but a lot of them don’t yet and hopefully Lucy’s book will help to enable that. What would any thoughts or advice you might have for Transition groups who might be inspired after this two-month theme about the Arts to make the Arts more visible, more present, more interwoven with the work that they do?
First of all I would say buy ‘Playing for Time’. Seriously, we had a lot of discussion about this when we when it was being written, there was a whole chapter at the back called ‘Recipes for Action’. As a group of artists there were some people on the spectrum who say everyone can do this. And of course I think everybody is inherently creative and everybody is an artist, and actually life is practice and culture and how we live is creative. Art has got a bit over marginalised. I never use the word ‘art’, actually. Very, very rarely, because it’s got such a bad reputation.
First thing would be to try and take the word ‘art’ away from your own rubbish art teacher at school or poncy somebody-or-other that makes you think “that’s the arty lot”. There is the real skill of a professional artist and a professional participatory socially, ecologically engaged, relational artist. There is a honed skill and professionalism and depth of attention that comes from a professional artist, and we are all inherently creative. And so in the ‘Recipes for Action’ part of the book, what we talked about was how do we offer some of this practice out, and how can we translate some of our learning and our knowledge into recipes? That’s how it ended up, into recipes rather than ‘do it like this’.
There are recipes for holding a space, for running a project. For A Little Patch of Ground for example, we’ve put that into a recipe for how you might adapt that if you’re doing a growing project, think about adding in inter-generational, think about weaving in some inner work, think about how you could add films in there, maybe you could create a performance. That’s not saying you’d do it the same, it’s just having a think about it.
Maybe you could hunt out some artists locally who are doing things and seeing if you could hook up with them. I would say to a Transition group that working creatively is about trusting your imagination, trusting what’s possible. It’s very linked with Transition in a way. It’s linked in that idea, that’s a huge invitation, I would say. That’s what Transition’s about.
It’s an invitation for your own imagination and your own what’s possible. So it feels that as a whole you could say that Transition is a participatory art practice. It’s inherent in that. The Arts or creativity can get a bit marginalised “oh, it can make a nice poster, or it can make an event be nice, or it’s illustrating something”. That’s a tiny usage of it. It’s something around if there’s a challenge, if there’s an area, if there’s a sense of bringing a community together, if there’s an issue, actually doing it creatively and maybe working with an artist can get you miles. That would be my message – find some artists to work with and trust your own creativity at the same time.
Ruth is just one of over 60 artists who have written sections for Lucy Neal’s forthcoming book ‘Playing for Time: making art as if the world mattered” (see cover, right). The book is now published. TransitionNetwork.org readers can get £5 off Playing for Time. Simply enter this discount code at oberonbooks.com – ONPFT2015. Valid until 31 Dec 2015.