This text was produced in conversation with the artist Sophie Huckfield, who was invited to write an article for Social Works exploring shifts in socially engaged practice during the pandemic. Sophie was commissioned for Multistory’s High Street Stories programme, part of the Wednesbury High Street Heritage Action pilot project. As part of the programme Sophie created the publication Women, Work & Wednesbury , which contains research and interviews with local women about their role in Wednesbury’s industrial past and present. You can download the publication as a PDF here.
How have you adapted as an organisation to covid? What have been both the positive and negative aspects of this? Has it enabled you to reach different audiences and artists to work with? Are there any examples of practices from this time which have allowed you to work and create with communities in new ways?
Multistory was very lucky as we were able to transition our programmes to digital due to the process-based, participatory nature of our work. As a community arts organisation that has been based in Sandwell for 15 years, our strong relationships with local communities made it possible to continue engagement online through workshops, meetings and events. At the beginning of lockdown, we launched Stories in Isolation, a programme of bursaries and commissions that gave artists whose income had been affected by the pandemic the opportunity to develop a small digital artwork. We supported 14 local artists to explore new methods of engaging communities and to make work digitally. We also continued our regular Blast! Creative Network programme for emergent artists based in Sandwell and the Black Country, for which we host monthly closed-forum talks, workshops and social events online. Providing an online space for socialising and collaboration has been incredibly important over the last year, for everyone’s mental health – including our own!
Elsewhere, we have adapted our outputs for ongoing projects to online formats. For example, photographer, Karren Visser, is now working with us to produce a series of short audio-visual stories that we are collaborating with members of Sandwell Visually Impaired on, that will be shown via two online screenings later in the year, as well as in a digital exhibition on our website. In order to continue working on certain projects in a meaningful way, we have undertaken accessibility training with a focus on digital events and inclusion. This was particularly important for Karren’s project, in order to find effective ways of ensuring visually impaired Sandwell residents can share their stories and engage in online workshops. Making the process comfortable and inclusive for everyone involved has been a priority.
The positive aspects of this change to digital has been that we have been able to reach more people with our work. This is something that is being talked about across many arts organisations during the pandemic; moving to a digital programme has allowed people who may not have been able to attend physical spaces to suddenly have access to an exciting range of free events and arts programmes.
A hugely negative impact of the pandemic has been exclusion due to lack of access to the internet, and Sandwell and the Black Country have some of the UK’s lowest rates of internet access in the UK. This meant that due to social distancing and lockdown, people were suddenly excluded in ways they hadn’t been before. One of our collaborations with a local youth group ceased during this time, as engagement with participants relied on face-to-face sessions and without these many young people dropped out of contact. The postal service has played an important part to making sure people can stay involved. We created art packs for local youth groups and posted them so that they had activities to do at home. However, there has certainly been a loss of intimacy and, in many ways, communication has been eroded. We feel it’s so important to continue to offer a layered point of access to our programmes post Covid, using a mix of in person, or ‘physical’, alongside digital offers.
Working during Covid has undoubtedly been a challenge for socially engaged artists and during the Wednesbury HSHAZ pilot project, artists have reported on the challenges of not being able to pop down to the high street to meet shop owners or residents or conduct interviews in person. Despite these challenges, everyone has found ways to connect with community members and there has been a lot of engagement on Facebook, in particular, in terms of people sharing images and stories.
Ultimately Multistory has had to adapt like other organisations but we have a history of working on projects with new community members and cross-sector partners such as the criminal justice system and healthcare sector so, in many ways, we are used to being flexible and changing our approaches to engagement. It is also important to mention that we do not run a venue and this has meant we’ve been able to direct our energy into developing and changing our programme as needed.
How do you think we can build meaningful relationships and practices in an online context which remain true to the ethos of socially engaged practice?
It’s so important to practice care during these difficult times, with participants, artists, staff members, partners. The idea that we should continue to ‘produce’ at the level of pre-Covid, during a time of increased precarity of work and health, is so dangerous. It is important to build meaningful relationships where we can acknowledge when we are struggling (and these will be different for each person), and to resolve not to put pressure on one another to deliver things in ways we may have been able to do in the past. So, in short, building a meaningful online socially engaged practice cannot happen without an acknowledgment of the difficult and precarious context that we are working within.
As we touched on earlier, another important consideration is ensuring that projects and events are adapted to the varied access needs of participants, artists, staff. Putting into place a diverse range of communication methods, such as email, phone, post, WhatsApp, Zoom, text, is an important part of recognising people’s different situations and ensuring that many people can participate in an event or project.
When running in-person workshops and events we want there to be a relaxed setting where everyone feels comfortable to participate and leaves feeling uplifted and we have been working to create a similar feeling at online events.