The people that I work with generally fit into two categories; if my work is offline they will be part of a group with a collective identity, (e.g parents with children under 5, gypsies and travellers, adult learners), whereas if my work is online they will be part of a distributed network of individuals who have been drawn together by a common goal.
Offline groups are often described as a ‘target population’ within field of participatory arts; they are identified as having a particular need which a project will be tailored around in order to create a desirable social outcome. Individuals will often be recruited, referred or required to take part in a project because it will be good for them; they are seen as a raw material to be transformed by the artist, a concept based on the Victorian model of social reform. The danger of using participatory arts to respond solely to a social impact agenda is that these targeted groups can feel that a project is being ‘done’ to them instead of ‘with’ them.
Where participatory arts practice offline takes a located approach focussing on target population of place, online a networked approach is more common, connecting individuals to form a community of interest. An idea is presented that has the scope to bring like minded people together to pool resources and work towards a common goal with collaboration as their purpose. Individuals elect to take part in an online project motivated by enjoyment or self development and whereas offline the artist is seen to be different to the group online communities have the potential to be self-effacing and the artist can also participate as a collaborator.
As the premise of ‘I would like to get to know you better’ was to collaborate with people that I had encountered through creative activity both on and offline I felt it was an important aspect of the project to consider what would be the most appropriate means of engagement. I decided to choose my potential collaborators from three subgroups, people that I’d worked with offline, people that I’d worked with online and people that I had worked with online and subsequently met; there was one single selection criteria, that being ‘interestingness.’
I was very aware that the project would be operating within a gift economy and my expectation was for people to be generous both with their time and contributions. With this in mind I felt that initial contact had to be made in a way that communicated a genuine intention to involve each individual in a two way process of exchange that would be enjoyable and bring benefits to both of us. As my application submitted to the University of Lincoln through the AA2A scheme proposed that I explored my project idea through analogue photographic processes it seemed natural for correspondence with my potential collaborators to be in analogue form too.
I also liked the idea of creating physical artefacts for each stage of the project so that there would be something for my collaborators to keep and hopefully treasure rather than a trail of emails that would disappear into the ether. It seemed appropriate that as I was selecting people to take part in the project rather than recruiting them or letting them find their way into it I should formally invite them to take part; the first artefacts of the project was therefore a handmade invitation.
Slow correspondence and the process of creating my invites transpired to present a whole range of unexpected opportunities from developing new skills to creating a thinking space. I used a medium format camera for the first time and spent days in the darkroom rediscovering the magic of producing prints from its thick red gloom. I also resurrected a typewriter and after much clashing and jamming of keys found that it takes me 10 times longer to type a letter than to send an email.
I felt an enormous sense of satisfaction once I had produced and posted my set of invitations and enjoyed the experience of investing time and effort into making something that could carry my sentiments in a way that electronic communication couldn’t. Their tangibility set the scene for the project and hinted at what was to come, opening up conversations that broke the ice and built the foundations for trust and friendship to flourish.
©Katie Smith 2013