Community Arts and Practices: Improvising Being-Together – Petra Kuppers

Social science’s and social theory’s renewed interest in issues of community coincides with a new visibility for community arts and participatory-art making as an alternative to high modernist art practice and the romantic legacy of the individual artist. In this essay, I want to bring these areas of social thought into contact with one another: what is at stake in the definitions of ‘community’ at work in community art practice, and in what way do these definitions refract and intersect with the turn away from essentialised identities and ‘the nation’? How can phenomenological perspectives on art-making and processual comings-into-being intersect with community politics?

At the heart of this essay are two art projects: Earth Stories and Sleeping Giants, two digital videos that emerged out of a two-year long workshop series with a group of mental health system survivors in Wales, UK. As a resident of a small Welsh village, and a fellow disabled person, I collaborated with people using the village’s mental health self-help centre, and we created communal poetry, dance, performance, traditional music, and video.1 We used local legends and myths to find new ways of affirming our presences in our environment. Through these engagements, we found concrete ways of intervening in the negative representation of disabled people, and in particular mental health system survivors, in our locality and beyond. Acts of storytelling became central to this: who speaks, who shows, what is seen, how do we retell stories anew? In both projects, mediation and presence, image and lived experience, time and knowledge emerge as common themes, and as lenses through which to focus different conceptualizations of community. ‘Community’ arises as tactical lever, utopian hope and oppressive regime. It is both given and longed for, exclusionary and inclusive, tradition and innovation, located in stories, spaces, and habitus. In my discussion of these projects, I link our practical and embodied work, engaged politically to open up space for mental health difference in a small rural community, to wider ways of conceiving of engaged citizenry.

Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy provides theoretical tools to think community beyond self/other relations. In The Inoperative Community, he configures community by thinking about the way that being-together can resist and deconstruct dominant power relations that attempt to weld the process of being-together into a fixed state. Community exists in relationship and negotiation, and in an openness: ‘Community is what takes place always through others and for others. It is not the space for the egos ‘ subjects and substances that are at bottom immortal ‘ but of the I’s who are always others (or else are nothing)’ (Nancy, 1991: 15). The others of the I emerge because of the finite nature of the singular: for Nancy, singular beings lean towards others, searching ‘contact of the skin (or the heart) of another singular being, . . . [another finite being] always other, always shared, always exposed’ (1991: 28). This community is inoperative because the moment of sharedness, of an absolute connection, is sundered as it emerges: it is negated by the singularity of the I, just as the I leans and cannot help but lean towards the other. There are no egos that claim immortality, only I’s that know of their limit and seek others who share this limit, too.

Storytelling and myth-making are important parts of Nancy’s articulation of the inoperative community, a community that becomes inoperative at the same moment at which it offers relation.

We know the scene: there is a gathering, and someone is telling a story’. They were not assembled like this before the story; the recitation has gathered them together’. In the speech of the narrator, their language for the first time serves no other purpose than that of presenting the narrative and of keeping it going. It is no longer the language of their exchanges, but of their reunion ‘ the sacred language of a foundation and an oath. The teller shares it with them and among them. (Nancy, 1991: 43-4)

Storytelling, sharing language and myth-making, is the offering that allows the horizon of community to appear: ‘That the work must be offered to communication means that it must in effect be offered, that is to say, presented, proposed, and abandoned on the common limit where [singularities] share one another’ (1991: 73).

In storytelling (and Nancy uses somewhat ironically the ‘foundational scene’ of a circle, and a male storyteller), singularities can experience the shared limit: foundational stories make community inoperative, as the distance between the story’s ontological claim is thrown back onto the experience of the singularity’s limit, and the possibility of the I’s death. Wanting to listen, hear, and tell, we are abandoned to the distance between the story and our I, but we lean in, move our heads into the circle, hovering in the space between the I and the communal story. To me, Nancy’s account of community speaks of continuous flows ‘ of a leaning movement, of responsibility, of meanings. These I’s who are others ‘ singularities constantly in negotiation, touching their limit – are provisional, temporal. Life flows ‘ no point of standstill, definition, or grounding of identity in ontology is possible in this conception of improvisational community. In this essay, this emphasis on the I’s who are others informs the discussion of art-making as improvisational flow.

In the two art projects that provide the basis for this study, everyday performance was the ground on which we built our communal art work: being unconsciously and consciously in spaces that have histories, dominant narratives, dominant ways of being seen. Our disabilities meant exclusion from some of the spaces we were investigating. The environment we chose was a Welsh village, surrounded by the green hills of a National Park: the Brecon Beacons. The exclusions we experienced worked on a variety of levels, from physical access — regarding stairs, public transportation, or stamina — to imaginary access, concerning patterns of usage, ownership of a locale’s imagination and how this imagined ownership is put to use. Through performance, and, importantly, through the mediation of this performance in public environments, we inscribed our right of access to these spaces, making our presences felt. The performance act became the performative act: a conscious inscription of difference into sedimented patterns of naturalized ‘law’. With this, our work is not located within art therapy, changing ourselves, but within political labor, changing both ourselves and our world.

Our communal practice refused to be singularly authored, and this anti-romantic tactic (incongruous with the realm of landscape art) links our work back to everyday practices of story-telling. Community, this impossible goal, is tactically erected as a place to speak from momentarily).2 With this essay, I am offering a contemplation not (only) of a community of minds, but of co-habitation, embodiment and enworldedness as necessary aspects of a thinking towards a coming community. In order to present our practices of storytelling, I will first focus on some of the multiple strands of stories and histories that make up our locale, and that provide the tapestry against which and within which we weave our own myths, followed by a discussion of our art practices, and the methods of our political engagement.

Local stories

To speak about ‘community,’ I find it important to establish the ecology of the specific example of an intervention into the formation and articulation of community as a process. In the following example, ‘community’ emerges as many things: as an ideal, a marketing tool, an experience, a hope, and a problem.

The village of Ystradgynlais, where all activities I am discussing took place, is situated on the edges of the Brecon Beacons, a national park in the middle of Wales, UK. Ystradgynlais used to support itself through the mining industry, and traces of this industry’s interweaving with the local environment are still visible everywhere. The rolling hills of this part of Wales have been changed by Roman soldiers, Celtic inhabitants, sheep grazing, and now disused railway lines. The people who inhabit and are supported by this land include a Welsh-speaking minority and an English-speaking majority. The language of Wales has been a victim of imperialist English policy, and has been rooted out by various historical practices, such as forbidding the language from being spoken in school and in public meetings within living memory. More recently, the language has been artificially re-implanted in school curricula, and an ethnic and culture war surrounds its problematic position in modern Wales. ‘Community’ shifts and changes in the contemporary identity politics of Wales.

Many people live in Wales whose family origins might lie in Ireland, Italy, France or elsewhere, and who might have settled in Wales during the industrial revolution, when Welsh ironworks provided jobs for many. Other people might include more recent incomers who might have entered Wales as part of the counter-culture movement or as downshifters from the South of England. This last category of inhabitants is often and tellingly referred to as ‘white settlers’ by many Welsh who understand themselves as natives. Rifts occur frequently. Acts of violence characterize some movements burning with nationalistic fire: for a time, the burning of English holiday homes was a frequent topic in Welsh newspapers. With the institution of a National Assembly, the uneasy potentiality and impossibility of British separation is a specter haunting any identity artwork in Wales.

But against the image of Wales as a country of volatility and anti-imperialistic segregationist politics stands the image of Wales perpetuated in tourist brochures, and most clearly identified with the locality of the Brecon Beacons and its other national parks. This image is the rural idyll, with bucolic pastoral characters such as sheep farmers, sheep dog owners, and people who make things with their hands out of wood and reed.

All of these images, though, do not capture the reality of many of the people living in Ystradgynlais, and in particular, the experiences of people hidden on the economic margin, the unemployed and the disabled. Both the fiercely national and the bucolic image rely on segregationist and exclusionary concepts of community, on a single vision that references historical origin and continuity. This kind of mobilization of ‘community’ is deeply suspect to feminists and others who wish to think social change in conjunction with collective action. Thus Iris Marion Young critiques ‘community’ ideals when they become a desire for social wholeness and identification ‘ a form of politics that relies on sameness, and which in turn erects exclusionary zones and borders (1990). Benedict Anderson in The Imagined Community sees the problem of national community and its seductiveness in a different light: here, ‘it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship’ (1991: 5-7). But how can a community politics be mobilized that keeps openness, provisionality and respect for difference alive?

In order to address this question, I collaborated with fellow disabled people in Wales, and we realized that to create affective and effective arts for social change, we needed to find points of entry into the representational canon, into the images and stories of Wales. If we wanted to affect images of mental health issues in our local rural environment, the terrain of landscape art was a good framework, since it is such a prevalent and legible genre in Welsh culture. It is for this reason that I first conceptualised the project under the name of Landscaping Women: I saw a structural affinity between art historical arguments that found women to be the mute ground of landscape art, where nude female bodies were equated with so-called virgin soil, and disability’s invisible, yet structural relation, to the labour-poor economy of Wales. The cause of disability for many in Wales was the labour in coal mines: white finger vibration symptoms and lung diseases are common, as is arthritis. Depression and a wide variety of mental health symptoms are also common in Wales, one of the poorest regions in Britain. The uncertainties of a farmer’s life were most clearly illustrated in the foot-and-mouth outbreak, which pushed many Welsh farms over the edge into economic collapse, and, numerically and economically more significant, damaged the tourist trade in Wales. Organisations such as RuralMinds, aimed specifically at the countryside, organized special mental health helplines and created an awareness of the human cost of the crisis. Nationally and internationally, though, mental health issues in the countryside are marginalised ‘ mental health, underrepresented at the best of times, has become increasingly focused upon as an urban problem, associated with the rise of modernity’s social arrangements and alienations. Studies such as Torrey and Miller (2001) bear out this trend: epidemiologically, mental health and in particular, schizophrenia, tend to be associated with the city. The rise of the city and the rise and visibility of institutional practice around mental health technologies are linked in the cultural imagination. Thus the image of contemporary life as troublesome tends to leave out and make invisible the rural experience.

Also, few of these realities of contemporary rural life find their way into the romanticised images of Wales. And, just as many people living in the village of Ystradgynlais do not recognise themselves in the images of their region presented on television, their presences and bodies are also invisible in the landscape of the national park itself. In order to enter the park you require capital: the main access is by car. But also, more subtly, access is regulated in other ways: taking to the outdoors, walking in the wild hills, is a middle-class leisure activity, requiring a certain cultural capital as well. It is framed by the literature of the walkers in the Lake District, of the romantic sublime, of solitude and of communion with nature.

The main Beacons activity that extends itself to working class people is fishing: not only as a leisure activity, but also as something that could supplement one’s income. TV images of the Brecon Beacons, for many the main access to their local landscape, emphasize a place set apart from the everyday, a place of Sunday TV programming and English voices, tweed and shepherds (a mythologised working-class occupation which seems far removed from the roots of mining activity that still pervades the stories of the village). Fishing, sheep husbandry, farming ‘ the mainstream images and the visible reality of these occupations is male-dominated. Many of the participants of the mental health self-help group were female, and found their voices marginalised not only by disability and class, but also by gender.

For the people I worked with, other obstacles presented themselves in terms of access to the park: social security checks do not easily allow for the bus fare for the public transport ventures into the park; for some of the older participants of the workshops, mobility was a problem. Also, their circumscribed activity of everyday life doesn’t lend itself to one-off outings: the self-help centre is a place of routines, and therefore of safety: aspects of mental health issues that need to be taken into account in the design of any workshop. The answer to the issues of access was not to bring a bus onto the heath, but to find meaningful ways of structuring activity within the national park, and of finding connections between the park and the everyday. What can be usefully found here? What can we do that makes meaning for us? In the first meetings within the group, we agreed that one of our prime objectives for the creation of art works was to re-image ourselves, to speak for us and for others about our lived reality of mental health as people living where we did. All the participants had had significant mental health experiences, and encounters with the mental health system. Their life experiences included voice hearing, the diagnosis of schizophrenia, manic depression, anxiety disorders etc. Many had been hospitalized in their past, and knew first-hand the horror stories of mental-health institutions. Many were on drug regimes. Some had prison experiences, other had been homeless, many had wandered far from Wales and back, some had been New Age Travellers. Amongst us were retired miners, factory workers, a teacher and homemakers. For many of us, loneliness and the experience of the I as singular stood in tension with a way of life that romanticises village life, communality and community. As we begun our work together, we had to assert to each other again and again ‘you cannot know ‘ you know’, that double bind of singular beings and community that Nancy offers.

In our initial meetings and discussions over tea, we decided that we wanted to use the vocabulary that surrounded us in the media world, the vocabulary of land, myths, and history, both personal and national. These are the important, foundational stories of our environment, and we wanted to approach ownership of them ‘ even though we were aware of their problematic nature. Our lives are not separate from these images, and the desire to be seen mixed uneasily with the desire to use the images and narratives that shape the mediation of our world to ourselves.

We decided, then, to combine elements of disability politics and story-telling in our workshops by choosing the mental health self-help center as our location. We wanted to break the silence surrounding mental health issues, in particular in rural areas, but we wanted to present our experiences in an ambivalent way; not merely to stress the negative experiences, but to retain our dignity and pride as rural dwellers in modernity. We decided to open up a space for mental health experiences and difference by ascertaining the group’s own position in relation to the park, through the retelling of familiar stories in our own way. Negotiating the tensions and opportunities between the individual voice and a communal myth-making became central elements of the poetics we built together. Landscaping, then, became the object of the projects, the shaping of readable discourse out of the lived interaction between the social and environmental.

Methods: the Lady of the Lake

The focus of the first sets of workshops, in 2001, was the story of the Lady of the Lake. This story is centred on a lake high up in the hills of the Brecon Bacons, in an area of moors and high fens. The story mirrors similar myths in various British and international locations: a woman fairy steps out of the waters, leaves her kingdom, only to marry and not fit in, or to marry a mortal not worthy of her, and to vanish again, having transformed aspects of human experience. A local fish-and-chip shop displays the following précis of the Brecon Beacon Lady of the Lake story painted as part of a mural, written in ‘heritage’ script, on its walls:

In the midst of beautiful mountain scenery, about 16 miles from here, is the lovely lake of Llyn y fan fach. Here, legend has it that a beautiful woman appeared to a poor shepherd boy who was so taken by her that he asked for her hand in marriage. She agreed, but only on condition that he wouldn’t strike her 3 times. However, he found cause to and she returned to the lake with her dowry of animals. Behind her were left 3 sons who became the famous doctors of Wales. (Mural at the Bwyty West End Café, Llandovery)

In the imagination of local people, the story of the Lady of the Lake has, naturally, many more facets, sub-sets, versions, and events than the bare bones story narrated on this local wall. Two examples show the different depth that the story has for local residents: In the self-help group, we found in particular that stories that emphasized the reasons for the violence of husband on his fairy wife were of interest in many of the versions that mainly the women in the group knew and had selected to remember. Another aspect of the Lady of the Lake stories liked uniformly by the group were their gothic, dark tones ‘ dark water kings, threat and danger are not part of the ‘official’ myths narrated in tourist booklets, but are part of the local mythology.

In the workshops that followed, we used performance tableaux, rituals, creative writing methods and spatial chorus work to create moments out of the legend’s connection with our lives. Through this legend work, we accessed a realm of political practice similar to the kind of practices that de Certeau calls ‘tactical’. The tactic stands in opposition to the strategic. The strategic is forceful, dominant, it can lay down rules, generalize these and make them work. The ‘other’ to this central force, inscribing its laws legitimately, is the tactic ‘ the work of the minor, the non-dominant: A tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance (de Certeau, 1984: xix).

De Certeau offers the distinction between the strategy and the tactic as a way of understanding the nature of resistance within Foucault’s field of discourse. Resistance is not conceptualised as fully there, conscious, strategic, an organized political practice. Instead, de Certeau sees everyday practices as tactical interventions: he likens walking, shopping, talking, etc. to acts that momentarily, locally, impact on power structures. An embodied knowledge of the street allows a way of living that negotiates the dictates of street grids, and the vision of social planning, abstraction or metaphorisation of life: by walking the street, the ‘soulless’ plan becomes a lived experience that could, potentially, open up a moment of difference. People get away with things:

[V]ictories of the ‘weak’ over the ‘strong’ (whether the strength be that of powerful people or the violence of things or of an imposed order, etc.), clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things, ‘hunter’s cunning’, maneuvers, polymorphic situations, joyful discoveries, poetic as well as warlike. (de Certeau, 1984: xix)

De Certeau’s work on the politics and poetics of the everyday outlines how Foucault’s resistances can function in practice. His work shows how life deals with rules and how these rules can only be bound by temporality given the force of life running through them, leavening their strength.

Legends and myths, the energies expended on story-telling a location and thereby making it ‘human’, play an important part in this interaction between strategies and tactics. The absolute rule of ‘history’ as a monolithic discourse, one that has naturalised itself into truth, is put into question by the power of the minor story, the legend. De Certeau writes: ‘whereas historiography recounts in the past tense the strategies of instituted powers, these “fabulous” stories offer their audience a repertory of tactics for future use’ (1984: 23). De Certeau sees hollow places in the everyday, moments of layering that become accessible in the activity of the everyday, that make the everyday habitable by creating ‘depth’ and ‘space’, spatial metaphors that create ‘habitation’ ‘ a space where one can be, rather than having to be in one way only. Legends have an important function in this desire to make a space out of a place, making it human-shaped, inhabitable, weaving it into the practices of the everyday. They help to create a phenomenological, lived experience of a location.

It is through the opportunity they offer to store rich silences and wordless stories, or rather through their capacity to create cellars and garrets everywhere, that local legends ‘ permit exists, ways of going out and coming back in, and thus habitable spaces. (de Certeau, 1984: 106)

Legends are seen here as ‘exits’: as Spielraum, room to play, offering the potential to not be caught in an endless, dominant signification. They allow for a place to be seen differently. This ability of legends to open up spaces for difference was used in the process of Earth Stories: using the make-believe of the legend, it allowed our group to make-believe our own situation, and therefore to allow our imagination to soar. Ultimately, this strategy allowed us to see ourselves not fixed in discourse, but experience discourse as a Spielraum. And yet, this ‘freedom’ also highlighted again and again the distance between myth and the limited I, the inoperable nature of storytelling that haunts our gatherings.

De Certeau links this ability of stories and their historical, layered ghosting of a specific location to tactics evading the fixed knowledges of Foucault’s Panopticon: ‘There is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence, spirits one can ‘invoke’ or not. Haunted places are the only ones people can live in ‘ and this inverts the schema of the Panopticon‘ (1984: 108)’.

But these local stories create forms of knowledge that are minor, local, momentarily evoked, in tension with the ‘public’: ‘This is a sort of knowledge that remains silent. Only hints of what is known but unrevealed are passed on “just between you and me”‘. (de Certeau, 1984: 108). These links between knowledge and minor discourses, and between practice and transformatory repetition, became graspable in the workshops. Every time we joke about the woman’s perception of the strikes her husband gives her, the perspective shifts momentarily from the ‘inevitable’ difference between human and fairy to gender issues: traditional tellings of the story use the point-of-view of the young man who wants to wed the lovely lady he saw in the lake while he was herding his sheep. Every time we transpose our local environment into the gothic genre, we see our world with different eyes, and the ‘normal’ loses its hold temporarily. Nancy’s community of I’s who are others, who journey together to see themselves shifting, becoming, and yet are part of a common place emerges in this improvisatory play. Becoming other, stepping outside the rules of place and space, means being both more and more fully the I’s we already are: our imagination and ways of being allow for more than one facet of subject position, but we are always bound back to the conditions of singularity, subjectivity, imagination and context that we live in. We can recognise the strangenesses and familiarities in each other, the moment where story and the I are cast asunder, where the experience of the limit exiles us from full presence in the myth we make. But instead of retreating to disappointed selves, we can see otherness within ourselves, and we can begin to build community that is both located in specific conditions and yet open to difference. The tactical uses of holding open the multiplicity of the I are not without serious discomfort, though: no place of rest and certainty is available. Art historian Kwon focuses on this aspect of community arts when she discusses the problems that face the community artist as member of a community:

[T]he artist engages in an ongoing process of describing and enacting his/her allegiance and commitment, constructing and maintaining a dual identity (as artist here, as community member/representative there). ‘ and of course, all subjects within this network are internally split or estranged as well, continuously negotiating a sense of identity and subjectivity through differential encounters with the other. (2002: 136-7).

In our projects, all of us weld our identities in new provisional alignments: Welsh, English, German, farmer, miner, unemployed, academic, artist, writer, performer, family member, patient, victim, survivor, client, and many more. When we work together, paying careful heed to the multiple identities, it means that we strive to hold open the unknown: a sense of difference within the known, within the warm atmosphere of our meetings. Listening to the poetry we write, many of these singularities as multiple, in new constellation, emerge as we trust ourselves to share. The sharing is the core part of this relation: not the content of what is shared, or the reception of the shared content and its understanding. The act of leaning anchors our circle. Nancy’s notion of ‘leaning’ towards community has allowed me to think of these differences and otherings, as well as those that swing among us unsaid, unwritten, and as yet unthought, as potentialities that feed our community, and question its boundaries and definitions.

De Certeau offers a phenomenology of resistance: of the embodiment of living within structures, opening up spaces for people to live in. The political hope I hold is that the accumulation of layers, distancing us from the ‘dominant’ story of our world and its relation, and from our story of our self, doesn’t just alienate us, but opens up Nancy’s I’s as others. This offers up a reservoir of richness that binds us with different ties to one another and to our locality. I believe that a stronger grasp of the potential of group communication and a sense of pride in the ‘deep’ location surrounding us can awaken social processes and political consciousness. Art-making played a significant part in this transformatory process: the workshops were process-based, but over a period of time, we shaped aspects of our work together into a product that could leave the circle of the self-help centre and travel into the wider social world. Early on in one workshop, we created a short performance piece about the Lady of the Lake, consisting of a number of tableaux and transitions, and a narrative recited as a choral with individual voices taking on different ‘characters’. The group showed great pride in their creation after a number of run-throughs, and the moving together, creating spaces and openings for one another set a new tone of intimacy and openness in the following workshops. As we talked about the experience, it became clear that while we felt a desire to show our work, we acknowledged a multitude of problems in bringing the performance ‘live’ to local events. And thus, our version of the Lady of the Lake traveled to the outside as a video, combining spoken poetry and visuals, recording us in the very countryside we were talking about. This provided a very useful vehicle for allowing our imaginations to soar, and our writing and our stories became wilder, as everyone realized that a different set of rules, or strategies, commands the universe of video-making than that of live art.

Embodiment as a reservoir and repetition of knowledge played an interesting part in the way that memories became retrievable, and entered from the private into the social: when we were exploring the connection between our childhood memories and the story, most of us pointed to moments of outside physical activity as a pivotal point in our memories: walking in a group of school children, standing by a gate in the garden, playing in a field. Meditating on the myth brought many of the participants to recall the feeling of grass under their fingers, their emotions as they sat amongst rocks, stared into a river. We discussed how video would allow us to show intimate perspectives, including the touch of hand on stone, in close-up.3 We discussed how other sensations might be best given space in narration, without ‘playing it out’ in images. Sensations usually characterised as ‘minor’, ‘private’, took on a different charge as we gave ourselves permission to focus on our way of telling, and how it felt right to us. Soon our workshops moved outside, from the living room of the community centre to the small garden. We collected sensations, feelings, stories, moments, images and scenes. I acted as facilitator and scribe: recording with whatever means possible what we hoarded, moderating discussions that edited our collection of everyday practices and local re-tellings down to manageable size. Our poems were all communal: we agreed on a theme to write about (for instance the gothic imagery discussed earlier), and then we all produced four lines, sometimes only single words in each line. Then we read them out to each other, and finally read them communally: in a circle, everybody reading their first line, then as the circle came round again the second one. In this way, a communal theme created a coherence in the poem, but one that was beyond the individual author. In these poetry rounds, the I’s do not share their singularity, but we lean in, from our own singularities into a rhythm, a round.

Giant river boulders, round hollows ground into them, by the rushing river twirling into deep dark pools.

Branches bent, fingers grip, fear flings me into the hole.

Grass bends into the earth.

In the craggy rocks, an opening to an underground tunnel.

I am frightened of the darkness.

The sense of not knowing where will it lead to, how long will it go on for.

Suddenly there is light ahead – a cave in the mountainside.

Deliver me from the fear of darkness, lady of the lake.

The lady of the lake appears in the garden, and flies to the moon and the stars, and promises, good times will appear once more.

(from Earth Stories videopoem)

Anxieties: Sleeping Giants

If Earth Stories was our summer story, our celebration, and our engagement with mainstream aesthetics, the next video we created, Sleeping Giants, was our winter work. It is harsher; its production is even further removed from ‘the professional’ as we took the camera with us all the time, with different videographers amongst us capturing the shots. It is further removed from the pastoral image: we are now in the village, and in its lifeworld. The videopoem deals with another local story: as you move towards Ystradgynlais and through it, you can see a hill above the village. The outline of the hill is like a lying man ‘ and the formation is called the Sleeping Giant.

I wish I could lie still

For a long long time like you do

Is the sleeping giant going to wake up?

Is the sleeping giant going to wake up?

Head in the clouds

Stone body

tilting feet first

down into the earth

(From Sleeping Giants videopoem)

What is particularly interesting is that this man is not visible from any static point ‘ the best views can only be gained by traveling in a car. The route of this street is actually the closed and disused line of the canal that used to transport coal from the Beacons and Ystradgynlais to the iron works. And this connection between the giant and the coal, the hill and the mine workings, the cave, the weight of history, the lost grandeur of Welsh economic power, is the back-story of our second videopoem. In it, we search: our original idea was anchored in the detective genre, searching compulsively for the Giant. Compulsion disorders and anxiety is something many of us in the group share, and we saw here a way of again transforming individual mental habits into an artistic vision.

Find a deep cave to the heart of the giant

It is dark but my eyes adjust

Two small points of light in the darkness

I can see the light through the crevices of his fingers

Heart beating faster, I could feel the warmth and the need to get closer to the giant’s heart.

The giant’s heart is a cave of stalagmites, an unchartered country.

(from Sleeping Giants videopoem)

By reading de Certeau, I shored up my sense of the communal importance of our art-making. I can make sense of the empowerment, the euphoria of re-imaging ourselves. But, of course, the act of labour itself is always visible, the tactic remains momentary, minor, a forced insertion. Performance substitutes, cites, re-creates. Yet performance does not offer an easy substitute, but a laboured one ‘ to quote Joseph Roach, ‘a stand-in for an elusive entity that it is not but that it must vainly aspire both to embody and to replace’ (1996: 3). This Sleeping Giant is not mythical, ritualistic, always-already-there, outside history. In our practice, the Giant becomes discursive, historically contingent, an oratorical procedure. By recounting when we saw him, we historicize him, binding his presence to the time of our lives ‘ bridging distances between I’s and myths. With this, our Giant as myth, retold, offers us a process of community communication. By destabilising the founding story, we fight for entry into the realm where new meaning can be founded at the same time as we continue to be suspicious of founding stories and their exclusionary effects. And it is our loss of certainty, our anxiety, that allows for new community to come into being, in being-together, and in joint exploration.

Here the mythic hero – and the heroic myth – interrupts his pose and his epic. He tells the truth: that he is not a hero, not even, or especially not, the hero of writing or literature, and that there is no hero, there is no figure who alone assumes and presents the heroism of the life and death of commonly singular beings. He tells the truth of the interruption of his myth, the truth of the interruption of all founding speeches, of all creative and poietic speech, of speech that schematizes a world and that fictions an origin and an end. He says, therefore, that foundation, poiesis and scheme are always offered, endlessly, to each and all, to the community, to the absence of communion through which we communicate and through which we communicate to each other not the meaning of community, but an infinite reserve of common and singular meanings. (Nancy, 1991: 79).

When we as a group engage our local myths, we do so with an agenda and a tactical sense. We substitute the dominant myth, but the act of substitution creates a new anxiety and liminality, new impossible desires for wholeness and plentitude: a traumatics of political art labour. The mythological fullness of mythology is not available to us. Our myth is a substitute myth, hewn out of dominant images as a response to them.

As I am writing this, the metaphor of the coal mine keeps inserting itself into my textual fantasy, but I have to resist: the bodily and mental trauma of the work deep in the mountain, finding dirt that fuels machines, doesn’t map onto the kind of myth excavation that searches for material to re-imagine mental health. But the origins of the fantasy are clear: an investment in the local, in the everyday, in repetition, are at the heart of both mining and our art-making. The cave of the heart becomes a space of doublings and hauntings.

Conclusion: community art

In Earth Stories and Sleeping Giants we translate. We transpose perceptual or cognitive difference into sources of artistic endeavor. We imbue our perception with the auratic quality of art work. At the same time, we undermine the auratic exceptionality which has proven so problematic for the definition of artists as geniuses, hovering near madness. Our communal practice that refuses to be singularly authored binds our work back to everyday practices of story-telling. And ultimately, our work also comes back to the traditional places of storytelling. Eventually, both Earth Stories and Sleeping Giants had very successful exhibition records, traveling to the British National Film Theatre (as part of different years of the National Disability Film Festival), and to many other international film festivals, conferences, and disability culture meetings. But these circuits were quite far removed from the realities of the Welsh village, and the everyday funding and acceptance struggles of a mental health self-help organization in its own locality. More importantly, then, our videos played and continue to play locally. The Mental Health Self-Help Centre uses the video as part of its regular stand at the local markets, where the stand functions to raise awareness of the centre and its function in the community. The videos have also helped the centre to raise funds: they provide excellent marketing material, and give an insight into the abilities, depth and creativity of the people using the centre. In all of these marketplaces, where information is exchanged and public visibility tested, our re-visions of ourselves tactically undermine stereotypes of disability. In the video interviews that accompany the videopoem about the Lady of the Lake, two participants describe their experiences in the project as follows:

When we began this project, I was very apprehensive about starting it. I’ve always written, but it was always personal, private to me. But I never ever dreamed that anything like this could have come out of it. Because people with a mental health problem, there is such a stigma attached to it. It is like people with a mental health problem are non-achievers, but that’s not true to all. Because what we achieve in doing this project is more that I could ever dreamed of doing!

Being part of this project has been a revelation. I worked in a group, which wasn’t something I was used to doing when I had my own mental distress, disability. I always had the feeling that something good could come out of something that at the time was so very bad and black and terrible. But I know that if we go really deep inside ourselves, we can reach a creative point and that is what working in this group has revealed to me.

(video transcript)

In the processes of the project, its products and in the use we make of these products in the locality, the impossible goal of community emerges as a provisional place from which to speak. Working and re-working the connections between the everyday, the artistic, the land and the people, the village and the mental health self-help group, images of mental health and conceptual or temporal difference, plentitude and desire, we again and again start up to knit places to live in, and we do so in being-together. We lean, connecting I’s and others, singular story and myth. The last words of this essay, then, come from our group rather than from one single voice:

This is not a giant of despair,

this is a giant of hope

I saw him after the snowfall

silent and frozen in time

His cheek was wet

He lay there like a monster,

quiet and still

I thought if he yawned,

his arms would reach the sky

For images and texts of the Earth Stories project, see, (go to ‘Earth Stories’ link).


1 The work was initially funded by a MIND Millennium Award, a fund that allowed people to create work that strengthened their communities, without a salary or artist’s fee component for the organizer. After the first year, additional funds from the University of Wales, Swansea, Adult Outreach Department and, most significantly, from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, allowed us to extend our work. During the project, I was a research fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University, Contemporary Arts Department, and, towards the end of our time together, I worked at Bryant University in the US, from which I came back to visit. My academic appointments allow me to work in this open, collaborative and research-focused manner, without the expectation of ‘peer-reviewed’ outcomes or significant venues for my art practice. It is important to stress, though, that while community arts are (relatively speaking) thriving in many countries, community artists often struggle to make a living.

In the case of The Olimpias projects in Wales, the fact that I do not necessarily get paid for projects I facilitate or collaborate with people in, can be an important feature of building trust and working together. In other projects, and always depending on funding structures, this issue is dealt with differently: in The Olimpias projects in Rhode Island, every participant gets paid for participation in every workshop, as a recognition of their creative labour, appropriate to the way that recognition is usually bestowed in the US. For many of these participants, The Olimpias is an important economic reality in their lives, an issue that again impacts our work in significant ways.

Participants and collaborators in The Olimpias projects are aware that I am an academic, and of the ways that value and recognition flow within the academy. But they also know that I do not write about projects immediately, or after only short contact, and that I carefully guard privacy and confidences. When I do write about projects, it is with permission, with the trust of the community, and usually after a long period of reflection. In the main, collaborators know me as a fellow disabled woman, with many stories and issues that I share with them, but are not for publication or public consumption, just like their own. They know me as a disability culture activist, and they know that my writing is always in aid of a larger political project: the validation and celebration of disability culture and community arts.

2 As a ‘white settler’, I was well aware of the packaging of the countryside where I had made my home, and of the local stories and myths that were, in all manner of shape and form, presented for quick consumption for tourists, and that fed back into the imagination of children growing up in Wales. Over time, through working as a dance and creativity tutor in hospices and various other places where older people would open up their story reservoirs to me, I had come to appreciate the depth and range of many of these tales, which were only incompletely and in shortened form received by the mainstream marketing campaigns. At this time, I was working as a community dance leader, and created dance or participated in community dance events with local children and adults, where the Welsh stories of fairies, giants, Arthur’s saga material and Merlin stories were used as basis for dance themes: an effective and interesting way of socialising children and adults into their local story environment, but one that often relied on anodyne and ‘cleaned-up’ versions of the stories transmitted.

3 For a more in-depth discussion of the video methods we employed, see a short article ‘Afterimage: New Landscapes: Community Art, Video Process and Fantasies of Disability’, Afterimage, The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism. 29:3, Nov/Dec. 2001, 24-25. Some of the specific exercises, session shapes, and arts methodologies used in the Sleeping Giants and Earth Stories projects appear in my Community Performance: An Introduction, London and New York: Routledge, forthcoming 2007.


Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso.

de Certeau, M. (1988) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1988.

Kwon, M. (2002) One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge, London: The MIT Press.

Nancy, J.-L. (1991) The Inoperative Community. Trans. P. Connor, L. Garbus, M. Holland and S. Sawhney. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Roach, J. (1996) Cities of the Dead. Circumatlantic Performance. New York: Columbia University Press.

Torrey, E. F. & Miller, J. (2001) The Invisible Plague: The Rise of Mental Illness from 1750 to the Present. Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press.

Young, I. M. (1990) ‘The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference’, in L. J. Nicholson (ed.), Feminism/Postmodernism. New York and London: Routledge.

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