Alternative Editorial: The Promise of Social Making

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By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of A/UK

What is social making? It’s not a political term, like social cohesion which points at a result politicians are trying to achieve in order to keep the economy stable. It’s a verb – making social. Or, as Kim Wide of Efford: Take A Part describes, it’s “making society through socially engaged practice”.

How might we distinguish the socially active and the politically active? Let’s work with the accepted definition of society – meaning the sum total of all the associations we make between each other, as groups or individuals. To be “socially active” implies the opposite of being isolated, atomised and alienated. It’s your full humanity, expressed in and with others.

By contrast, we define political action much more narrowly – the public battle for control of power, resources and structures. However, the classical ideal of “citizens” forging their collective purpose in a “polis” hardly matches to our angry, short-termist, sometimes outright corrupt spectacle. By comparison with social action, being “politically active” hardly expresses our full humanity – particularly in the current broken forms of politics.

Amongst other forces, gender is implied . Politics, even just empirically, has been dominated by men, shaping governance, institutions, money and armies. Womens’ historic role in reproduction and domestic life, shaping the emotional intelligence of generations, has meant that “society” – composed of dense webs of relationships - have always been more open to women’s agency.

Yet since the internet, our experience of what is public has changed dramatically. We all know as much about how each other are feeling as we know our economic growth figures. Or maybe more. And as such, our emotions have become a currency we trade and a source of power that can be manipulated.

More than that, understanding what motivates people, gives them belonging or purpose, is as valuable to those in power today, as the knowledge of whether they have jobs or are paying their taxes. Not knowing that led to Brexit – a decision against the majority leadership of all the main political parties to remain in the European Union  - by 52% of eligible voters in the UK.

Yet even though network-era party politics have become theatres for primal emotions, it is still predominantly women who are engaged in society-making, and men who stalk the political battleground. I was pondering this at a Social Making Symposium – another highlight of my Plymouth residency this week.

Over two days, curated by Kim Wide and her small team of highly motivated and skilled women, I experienced more political “highs” than I had for a while. By this I mean more insights into why we are in the state we’re in and what to do about it. Which is surely the business of politics, you’d have thought?

The information came not through theories of behaviour or prescriptions for the disempowered from above. Rather it was a series of talks about how individuals were engaged with society in new and deep ways, and the impact of that on others. I can’t do the line-up justice – a full report will be available from the Social Making team soon - so I’ll mention two that are reverberating within me, even as I type several hours later.

The first came from Co-Production and The Arts Action Group, members of Take a Part Carlow, just an hour out of Dublin. Sinead Dowling shared the only available map on the web of Carlow -  a line drawing of economic activity, accompanied by statistics about deprivation, lack of housing and unemployment. The map does not show the skills, character and ideas of the people it barely delineates. Sinead questioned the familiar political aims of building capacity in a community in which capacity has always been there, but not engaged with.

Sinead O’Reilly then talked about how community artists had found themselves helping to shape local government and policy. Those who are managing resources are increasingly becoming the same people who are deeply engaged with its highest expressions and deepest vulnerabilities. What that happens, there’s a considerable impact on the well-being of a community.

For example, artist and film maker Mick Fortune introduced us to the people of Carlow and how the past decade of austerity had created a sense that their human presence had become blurred; as if their characteristics had been removed from the public space. Where was the evidence of their faces, their quirks, their humour ?

One of the very successful socially engaged arts projects that was funded in response, saw community member collecting old stories of folklore, ritual and belief to bring back the tradition of making costumes to wear in public.

In contrast to all the negative stories associated with social media, Mick acknowledged Facebook’s vital role in amplifying the efforts of participants - so that they were constantly sharing new hats, gowns and shoes to be worn in the street - not just on Halloween. It was a picture of a community returning to itself in the 21st Century and coming alive through the power of the arts.

In another, electrifying presentation, artist, writer, researcher Rommi Smith spoke for an hour in rhythm with an improvised Jazz piece, on the subject of collaboration as resistance. Using the jazz singer Billie Holiday as her inspiration, she explored the micro-aggressions of everyday racism and gender bias. Smith invited members of the audience to take part in reading her scripts, so they could embody the history.

For contrast she offered the power of a key to open up new possibilities – such as the day she was given the key to the archive of LBGTQ experiences collected in New York City. Each of us found a key under our own chairs to encourage us to be open and offer openings to others. The power of her staying with her own focus, her lines often becoming spoken word poetry, never lecturing us on the rights and wrongs of artistic practice, was itself a transformational experience. It was not a lecture on equality, but a radical experience of equality.

After two days of witnessing socially engaged arts practice I was able to sense what a radically other politics might feel like. One in which the flourishing of people and communities was the priority and resources were given liberally to artists to be actively co-creating, opening up spaces for people to reclaim their long-forgotten, deeply-felt selves.

But it wasn’t – isn’t - clear how the elevation of these skills and their impact was going to occur. Not least because the majority of people in the field of social making are women, who are going about their work quietly, not seeking the kind of attention that draws political energy. In a fish-bowl exercise at the end of the symposium, more than the obligatory one chair repeatedly stood empty: when I challenged those present to step forward, many insisted on the right to stay out of the limelight.

Whether such practitioners see themselves as leaders or not, does not preclude a kind of politics that radically shifts power and resources to the grassroots, where the most people live. This is not simply a question of fairness, but a practical prescription for the health of a polity that suffers – with epidemics of depression, addiction and crime - from lack of engagement and not being heard. Like a body with poor circulation – there are impacts on the extremes.

The starting point for all our Alternative Laboratories, is to bring the community into the room. Not every single  person of course, but more like what happens with sortition – the process by which people are selected for jury service – a fairly random selection from the full diversity of the polity. When those people have some time to deliberate together – especially with artists co-creating the space, opening up the imagination – it is the closest we can get to finding the wisdom of the crowd.