Permission to Imagine: Thoughts on Art Practice as a Councillor

I finally updated my LinkedIn profile this week to include that I’m a councillor now. I dunno if this means I have made it official in my own head.  When I added it,  LinkedIn calculated how long i’ve been in this position for, and it came up with 11 months! I couldn’t quite believe it. 

Nearly a year. It doesn’t feel like it. 

I thought by now I would have learned most of what I needed (the basics of things), to ensure I can be as useful for my residents & Doncaster, generally. But even the basics are never-ending. Nearly every 10 workdays, almost like clockwork, I will learn something new – from HMOs to children’s homes to purchasing unadopted roads?!, and beyond. I suppose that’s the thing, what makes being a public servant is that things are never static and there is always learning to do. National policy changes, people’s needs evolve, the world moves on – and these all reflect in the ever-shifting landscape. 

We went door-knocking 2 weekends ago, to let people know about the Pizza Party Consultation on Welfare Hall vision we’ve got from an amazing architect The Pizza Party was an amazing in & people were so excited about it, but when it came to talking about politics, it wasn’t as conducive. It wasn’t negative, but it was real issues and also genuine apathy.

I have been asking myself for some time now, how do we get people to take a chance in things? To take a risk in making stuff better? Instead of being reactionary, to default to these myths that “we can’t afford” to make things fairer, better, healthier.  To believe they really have the power to change things. Even though it is *really* hard. Because of our conditioning, our ideas about safety and risk can be difficult to disentangle from the punitive culture around us.

My goal since I started running to be a councillor was to test my art practice & design in health experiences in actual practice. Can art/design practices as methods help channel community, local democratic involvement and uncertainty, into activity and action… and change/a level of satisfaction? 

How can we evolve and shapeshift through all these stages? and maybe art can help with this? or maybe not? Can I use different – truly people centred & powered, creative – methods to help people understand local issues, or create space where they can see themselves in it, building things? Can good, fun, engaging design pull people into even checking things out in this area? 

The questions that come with this are: What is it to imagine? And imagine beyond our current paradigm and who gets to do that? And who has the license, the freedom? What does it take to engage in that as a practice? And then what does it then take to make something from that imagination process?

I know what it takes, as an artist. And it’s alot. And i know what it means to know what you are giving up to do this kind of stuff. There are sacrifices. But can we move beyond this binary ? Change the ideas/ conditions. There are stakes involved in changing everyday conditions. Art practice for me as a councillor is about using time and space as resources.

Art is made within, and in, communities. It gives image to place and energy to driving the necessities. There’s a real art in working in a community and asking the questions. In Sheffield, there’s an artspace called DINA. For years I’ve wondered why it’s called that and I’ve only just learned that DINA was a communal warrior goddess. That makes so much more sense now.

In my heart of hearts, this is what I kinda hope if we save the Welfare Hall will be like. And the community gardens and the future updated playground. All of these spaces of community imagination to manifest into a real thing and to grow outwards. 

It’s art as facilitation. Finding the right questions in the room, not the answers. but finding the right Qs. There’s really no container for communities. And you can never capture spirit in a container.  Thanks to our Chief Exec at the Council, Damian Allan, he recommended me a book by Daniel Christian Wahl called ‘Designing Regenerative Cultures’, that also talks at depth about the power of questions rather than leading with answers. Teaching and reminding me of the power to reexamine what we do with a different perspective. How we must focus on the small-scale, the personal,  and local – with an eye to how these efforts interact with and may synergistically entangle with larger-scale transformation.

In short Wahl says that the best approach for positive change is to live the right questions (rather than adhere to rigid solutions) and co-create responsive, context-specific designs that mimic nature and slowly build up the health, the biomass/(bio)diversity, and the resilience of our communities.  Art does, and has the power, to form the methods and space to allow just that. 

One thing that strikes me often is how I am perceived to have a lot of power, as a councillor, and have very little at the same time. This is also whilst battling all kinds of outside forces.  It makes me think about how power works and how it actually manifests in the world and within institutions. What does it take to create the conditions for feasibility? Not being about replicating the same pattern. It is Arts ability to transform conditions to help us think about things as a mutal aid or practice, or a building as an artwork; a creatiive practice that we’re all apart of. 

Learning, and iterating ideas. This is also an artwork. 

But again, I come back to perhaps the hardest part of making this process real/tangible: Belief. Who gets to imagine? Why do people lose their ability to imagine as they older?

As Adrienne Maree Brown is quoted saying:

“We are always living inside someones imagination. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of ability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone’ else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.”

Adrienne Maree Brown

I wrote an arts council bid for my community the other day. I’m not sure we will get it, based on some of the issues of the art-world having exclusionary ideas of what art is, or what the value of a project is, and how ‘successful’ an idea is going to be. Which manifests into another system that is surprisingly anti-failure. Despite art coming from that.  

In that bid writing process, the application begged me for ‘audience benefit’ and I fell into tropes how my area has never had any art investment. Which is true. But what these ideas do is ignore the fact that there is actually LOADS of cultural things that exists here. It’s just not invested in and thus we don’t always see it.

This is radical imagination. And I mean radical in the sense to get ‘to the root of’. The essence of what something means. 

I grew up watching my grandad make something out of nothing. A Ukrainian Refugee, he’d go through people’s bins & take their waste that he thought wasn’t waste – something he did for all of his life. Make a meal out of it. He’d fix endless broken bikes, and lawnmowers and beyond. Coming from a poor working-class background, I come from this long lineage of people who know how to make things out of nothing every day, if that’s not a radical imagination, I don’t know what is. 

And this is the truth. This is the lived experience of my community of working-class people; of queer people, of people of colour, all having to create their own every day. Having been disinvested and having been unloved, having been uncared for or untended to, and we call it survival. 

So how do we combine this idea that there are people who are creating from nothing and not being invested in — but are creating so much value in the world? What would they do if they could have their material needs met? What would they do if they had their access needs met? What would they build? What would they birth in the world, if they had the license, and the space, and the community and all of the things, to dream and create things beyond survival? What does that look like?

Maybe through this process we will come up with a new language, maybe we will go back to an old language? Maybe we will say it through objects and groups that get made instead?

But as fuel, food, inflation prices keep rising, and other local, national and global crises keep growing. It is our hopes and possibilities that are our force for right now.

The false scarcity is this: we believe that shutting out others, keeping them out of our orbit, our country, our competitive space—that this somehow makes things more easier for us.

But today, value isn’t created by filling a slot, it’s created by connection. By the combinations created by people. By the magic that comes from the diversity of opinion, background and motivation. Connection leads to ideas, to solutions, to breakthroughs.

The false scarcity stated as, “I don’t have enough, you can’t have any,” is more truthfully, “together, we can create something better.”

Published by smizz

Artist → Re-evaluating life→ Rad Oncology graduate + public health worker→ @lab4living PhD-er → Want 2 make a positive difference → Rule-Breaker → LIVE DRAWZ! → councillor! → Loves cities → rides fixie → adventures → wanna be ramen master → <3 Tokyo + NYC

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