In a world rife with division, effective strategies for facing and mitigating difference—whether along the lines of privilege, gender, sexuality, faith, ethnicity, race or ability—are increasingly in high demand. Art, and the institutions that support it, mitigate on the front lines of this challenge, seeking to ‘engage’ different publics on the level of what might be understood as a ‘universal language’ of form and making. A person doesn’t need an art education to be moved by an artwork, and even the most conceptually obtuse works can act upon a viewer—even if it incites anger and frustration at its very existence. Sculpture presents particularly strong inroads, linking to something innate and natural in humans. As children, most of us will have sculpted (and tried to eat) playdough, and sunk our searching fingers into the mud in our back gardens. We understand without being told what it is to shape and form something malleable, or assemble structures from the things around us. It is somehow fundamental.
In a sea of programmes that seek to ‘engage’, the question of what engagement actually means for participants and whether such a thing is even possible is rarely addressed. Is the measure of a successful engagement joy, comprehension, surprise, inspiration, satisfaction, or simply the feeling of having experienced something, or even having come away with a sense of ownership of that experience? If some or all of these things, how then to go about measuring them? Often participants’ experiences are deeply personal (they may not want or be able to share them), intangible or difficult to put into words, or they simply aren’t able to reflect due to other forces and circumstances. The impact agendas that have become an inseparable part of engagement programmes aren’t designed to account for this apparent silence, and applicants often find themselves scrambling to find concrete ‘evidence’ of engagement in the aftermath. Even with careful documentation, testimonies and photographs almost always fall short in capturing the essence of an experience and the complex thoughts and emotions that played out within it.
Yorkshire Sculpture International 2019, with its emphasis on the anthropomorphic, explored these links to the human through its commissions, exhibitions and an engagement programme. In the year leading up to and during the festival, the latter involved working with school children, university students, and members of the wider community in Leeds and Wakefield to explore sculpture engagement in all its forms. In total over 47,000 people took part in 923 sculpture-related events across the two cities.
Engagement Curator Meghan Goodeve’s own thinking behind the programme, and its starting point—the concept of ‘material literacy’—is here explored in her own words, and those of the artists delivering sessions and people who took part in activity over the course of the festival. More than a simple reflection, ‘Feeling Form: Making a Movement’ presents a cacophony of voices that attempt to pinpoint particular, singular moments of realisation or creativity, such that we can start to see a picture of what engagement might look across a diverse spectrum of backgrounds, orientations and levels of access. Engagement isn’t just about bringing art to these individuals, it is equally about what they bring to the table, and how a session is shaped by such encounters. A glimpse into this range of responses is found in the descriptions of those delivering workshops, accounts that grapple with the problem of ‘capturing’ engagement in their very attempts to do so.
In this collaboration with Corridor8, which began with a writing residency and culminated in an online publication, the idea of ‘material literacy’ has been tried, tested and revisited. Lessons have been learned, particularly around the problem of traversing or overcoming difference, in exercising compassion and foresight in working with others, and the conundrum of putting the indescribable into words. Written and spoken language can here act as barriers rather than bridges, and other more universal languages are brought into service. The vocabulary of sculpture, and the material and object-led processes that shape and determine it, offer their own potentialities for communicating messages and meaning.
This shift toward something literate, but still intangible, is reflected in Jennifer Boyd’s ‘Open the Source’, a workshop that anyone interested in writing can do, that stretches the potential of words beyond mere description, to encapsulate the unfinished, the transient, the ungraspable. The seed for this was planted in a ‘real life’ workshop, ‘Writing as a form of sculpture’, with a group of undergraduate students at the University of Leeds as part of the engagement programme. Participants of the online iteration (which has grown and evolved in line with our conversations and reflections), are asked to alter their relationship to writing, to consider collective authorship, the sound of words and the way that they write, think and speak—and importantly, how they are received. Somewhere along the way we might discover a way to communicate the incommunicable, whilst reminding ourselves that the journey is the most important part.
By bringing together these two texts by Boyd and Goodeve (including the voices of those involved in the engagement programme), which are outward-facing in their platforming of perspectives, posing of questions, and offering of templates for action, we look to the future of engagement programmes. How might we create optimal conditions for experiencing art, alone and with others, such that we recognise something compellingly human in each other? Can such experiences effectively take us out of our individual selves and bring us closer to an acknowledgement, acceptance and eventually a celebration of our differences? In finding a common language can we truly reach one another across boundaries and barriers, and begin the more difficult task of working with and through difference? These questions, also a set of intentions, are directed toward those working or interested in the arts who have witnessed encounters that they struggle to put into words, or to capture on camera or video, which act as proof to them that an engagement with art can be truly transformative.
Image credit Yorkshire Sculpture International 2019
engagement programme (Photo: Nick Singleton)