#18 Bold and ambitious commissions

I was inspired during my time in Adelaide by Vicki Sowry at ANAT (Australia Network for Art and Technology), which supports artists, scientists and technologists to work together on creative research projects, mainly through a scheme called Synapse. Definitely worth having a look at! It’s brilliant to discover an organisation that offers time and space for speculative ideas and risk-taking.

Synapse has funded some tremendous projects, such as this new work by John McCormick, looking at movement tracking, haptic and robotic technologies to make dance performance more accessible to deaf-blind, blind or vision impaired audiences. And Keith Armstrong‘s projects to develop art-science and ecology-based collaborations with scientists, musicians, dancers, critical theorists and performers.

With Vicki, I talked about the parallels between the burgeoning area of arts and science, and that of arts and creative ageing. Both are emerging and experimental practices. For both, the work needs to be is excellent to be taken seriously.

Is there space in the UK for a commissioning organisation like ANAT that supports large-scale, artist-led, research-driven projects looking at ageing, considering older people’s needs and supporting writers working in age care settings?

Another thought: Everyone aspires towards excellence, but everyone brings their own cultural references and ideas to their notion of what’s great. ANAT motivated me to think that I’d like all literary projects with older people to be excellent…and also diverse. It’s better to have many model of good practice. For me, excellence is in variety and difference and pushing at the edges of the artform to make something new.

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#17 Big news

This post is just to tell you that today I saw two koalas and four kangaroos in the wild. It was amazing. None of the animals looked as excited to see me as I was to spot them.

#16 Adelaide. It smells good.

Adelaide is the best smelling city I’ve ever been to. Surrounded by parklands, the waft of grass and floral scents is everywhere. it might be the 100+ acre botanic garden, too, or just that everyone plants lavender or something. Hurrah, it is lovely.

Although I’m mainly looking into good models for the use of literature with elders, I’m also considering the type of training writers might need to undertake this kind of work, and am discussing this with funders and arts organisations, writers and advocates for older people. The person I’ve learned most from on this topic is David Chappell, originally from Cumbria, now Writer Development Manager at SA Writers’ Centre. His experience is in running writing sessions and creating collaborative literature projects. My favourite topic of the moment. So we had a lot to talk about.

In his role, David works at Flinders Medical Centre on the dementia ward, with older people in various settings, and also vulnerable groups such as individuals who are homeless, in a partnership with the Big Issue. Because of the demand for this kind of work, he’s now considering setting up an apprenticeship programme to help writers work in the community.

David’s top tips for writers wanting to work in this area include being flexible, and able to take the temperature of the room; being human and able to connect with people; being responsive to the group; being a good listener; being direct and serious; and keeping open and honest, being able to show your intentions.

#15 Creative Male Ageing

Tony Ryan is a radio producer, formerly of ABC, retired and now running a podcast series called Creative Male Ageing. The concept is simple: it’s about growing older from a man’s perspective.

There are all kinds of stats which show that men in later life can feel more isolated than women, and also that many activity programmes for seniors are not targeted at men. The podcasts interview academics, doctors and professionals of all kinds, as well as older men, discussing hot topics in health and new projects.

I met Tony and his colleague John McGowan to hear more about their experiences as older men, and the documentaries, radio and oral history projects they have both produced over the years. I admit I might have been stretching my concept of literary activity with this, but as I am interested in all kinds of written and spoken word projects produced by and with older people, this still slots in neatly.

We spoke about the role of producer as a facilitator of other people’s stories. While Tony and John selected the participants to be interviewed, and created the right environment for the discussions to take place, they aim to remove their own perspectives, in order for the other people to be heard. Of course, this is tough. Impossible, perhaps. We can’t eradicate ourselves entirely, but the intention is genuine. For one of John’s projects, he interviewed a range of Australians and took out his own voice in the final cut.

This is the crux of the research. In a project which does not intend to be interpretative or representative or responding to the context – that is, if the artist is not being asked to create new work – how do we define the role? If an artist is a facilitator and a conduit for the stories of others, how best can they represent them? Can they? Should they? Does it matter?

The funding for some of this work came from the South Australia Office for Ageing, which is a good reminder of the opportunity to seek support from outside the arts for creative projects with social inclusion aims.

One other thought. Tony quoted a man at a workshop he ran for older men, who said, “Everything I’ve done since retirement has been Mickey Mouse.” Poignant. That sense of purpose is lost after work comes to an end. This led us to talk about Men in Sheds – spots for older men to get together and make things – which began in Australia. It’s really big, with funding offered direct from the government. What it offers is the chance for older men to engage in good work, building and restoring furniture, bikes, toys, that kind of thing. The idea is that men thrive by being shoulder to shoulder, working, rather than face to face. Again, there are so many ways to engage older people in meaningful projects, and it isn’t the case that one size fits all.

#14 Good Lives

I have spent time with some brilliant minds during this trip. Lenore de la Perrelle works for ACH Group, a charitable organisation that supports older South Australians to spend their days in fulfilling ways. She is in the dementia learning unit. Part of that role includes initiating arts projects. Fiona Telford-Sharp runs a programme called the Exchange, which includes a writing group for older people – with an average age of 80 – who share stories and poetry about what a good life means.

The impression I had from Fiona is that she is always responsive to people. For example, she led a project for older people to write a health information booklet. Testing the idea with to a group of elders, she quickly realised that they didn’t want to read – let alone write – anything of the kind. Their creative energy led to the development of a writing group. It was advertised for those who were writing already and wanted a clear purpose for their words. So, no information booklet but a brilliant space for new writing instead.

Lenore talked passionately about arts, collaborative creative processes, social inclusion and how important it is for people to contribute to their own communities, regardless of age. Many of the projects she develops are cross-artform, which offers those with dementia multiple ways to join, understand and contribute to activities.

With many older people, Lenore’s team use a facilitation model to create personal life histories based on the memories and aspirations of individuals. The results are testimonies produced as pamphlets and books, a solid way to show value to all people’s lives.

I wondered a little about whether it could be taken further, whether writers could be brought in to make this work or respond to it. What might that offer, allowing another person to walk around in someone else’s world for a while and create new poems or stories from that place?

An organisation like ACH would be the ideal partner for a writer, as it provides continuous connection with individual older people and groups. While ACH would have the overview and maintain all relationships over extended periods of time, an artist could be brought in for short or long term projects, and focus on making this work brilliant.

#13 Clashes are helpful to recognise too!

One of the most fascinating meetings I’ve had on this trip was with the Dulwich Centre. Adelaide is where narrative therapy was developed and launched. It’s a practice used in community and counselling work. I was not so familiar with the concept before I began embarking on this research, but I was drawn to the idea of a therapy that looks to understand people’s identities through stories.

I met with Cheryl White and David Denborough, who talked me through the practice and shared examples of it being used effectively with those with dementia. While my area of interest is not in writing as therapy, there is much I can learn from therapeutic practices.

For example, authorship is a key idea for community writing projects and for narrative therapy. Both question who the author is, and who is making the decisions about how a story is represented. NT believes strongly in co-authorship and the role of therapist as collator rather than writer. Any writing or stories told would be acknowledged as mutually produced, with the individual or group and the therapist having equal roles.  In a writing project, it might be defined from the outset that the writer would be penning pieces about or from the experience, very clearly from their own perspective.

There’s also the issue of leadership. NT would aim to create principle figures within a group, to be active and lead peers. The therapeutic model aims to provide a framework for those within a community to take a leadership role. Again, in an arts project, the artist might provide and lead on that framework.

The clashes are helpful to recognise, too. Cheryl pointed out the aspects of the projects I’ve developed or praise as good models, and how they would not be appropriate in a therapeutic context. Particularly, the artist making work about an experience, rather than with individuals. That said, I have a great passion for learning and sharing the craft of writing, and experimenting with creating fiction in new forms. I know that has its own worth. Added to this, those living with dementia can’t always consent to therapy, so arts have a purpose there.

This all makes me feel exhilarated. As I think I’ve said before, I think there is a place for all kinds of ways of developing stories and literary projects with others. I’m keen to learn more about narrative therapy, and spot more overlaps and points of difference with community arts practice.

#12 – A part has gone missing

It has a dreamy quality: disorientating and strange. Jane Baker’s sound piece Echo Part 1 – A Neurological Soundscape is a thing of beauty, and I was lucky enough to hear it during my visit to Hobart. An intimate twenty-minute recording, it was originally produced for small audiences who wore headphones. It explores the disjointed and isolating experience of living with dementia.

While audiences usually enter a carefully curated space, with visual effects, Jane offered me a more modest experience in her office, through a laptop!

The piece is based on the daily routine of an aged care facility and the inner world of memories. It’s like living within a story. And wow, it’s emotional. You as the listener become a central character with dementia, experiencing the world around her in sounds, unsure and unclear, piecing together the voices and the noises and the dreams of the past.

What’s interesting for me about Jane’s work is how she builds a story through sound and technology. Jane worked in aged care for years. She recalled one resident saying his dementia was ‘not as if I’ve forgotten everything, but a part has gone missing.’ She used this idea in the making of the sound piece: taking out slivers of sound to unsettle the listener.

I’m viewing Jane’s work through the lens of literature, because to me she has created an immersive fiction, inviting people to enter. The auditory elements of a story opens up possibilities of sharing something of the lives of those who might otherwise not be able to express the experience. 

Jane is brilliant. You should look up her work. Currently she’s developing projects which explore the benefits of introducing virtual soundscapes to people with dementia.

#11 – Let’s make public literature projects

Oh my. Hobart is so beautiful.

I spent my first evening at Mona, the gallery here, marvelling at the eclectic collection housed here, and watching the sunset fade sitting within a James Turrell sculpture (pic above). This part of Tasmania is fizzing with activity. Hobart looks like an olde English town, with a mountain backdrop, and tons of public art everywhere. Even the street furniture is decorated by artists.

Literature-wise, there’s a buzzing Writers’ Centre housed in an arts complex, a festival for writers and readers, and a great literary and ideas magazine called Island, which has a growing reputation. During my stay I met with the arts and communities teams at Hobart City Council, as well as with festival directors for the writing and the Ten Days international arts festivals.

Tasmania has the highest proportion of older people in Australia, and its local policies reflect that. Hobart has two really great strategic frameworks. One is about positive ageing, supporting the participation of seniors in the Hobart community. The Council runs Mathers House, a centre which promotes friendship, social connectedness and interaction. The second is Creative Hobart, a strategy to boost the arts in the city… and includes an emphasis on public literature projects, such as writers in residence schemes and community writing activities. Rock on.

With Jo and Danielle, I spent the morning considering how these two strategies interlink. We thought about the ways writers could bring their writing from a solo practice to public forums, use plinths and walls, pavements and light boxes, join and facilitate community groups, and offer readers and audiences marvellous new ways to interact with poetry and fiction.

The idea of public or collaborative or community or applied literature really intrigues me. But there are challenges, as writing is usually a private act, a solo practice. How can we elevate this form of writing equal to that produced on the page or for the stage?

#10 Some remarkable people

I loved Brisbane, and met quite a few tremendous individuals. The picture above was taken at Brisbane’s University of the Third Age centre in the City. It’s one of the biggest in the country, and possibly one of the few U3A’s which owns its premises. The demand for classes are huge, and include debates about the Middle East, poetry appreciation and creative writing.

Ignore the person in the photo who wearing their last clean cardigan, and look at these brilliant folk who run the centre, coordinate the classes, advocate for active ageing, give older people great purpose, and open minds. I met Gail, Rosemarie, Thea and Greg on Thursday afternoon and also dropped into some of the classes being run. I think the whole concept is joyful, and generous. People share skills, volunteer their time, and it’s all low cost to ensure access.

Thea also took me to visit Keperra Sanctuary Retirement Village on Friday, her friendly home in Brisbane. Here, 350 residents live independently and almost all participate in or facilitate in classes. There are groups for art, poetry, philosophy and family history. I ate yet more cake and talked to a few of the individuals who enjoy life in this village. Hearing them talk about later life was illuminating for me. We are all by turns social and private, but that feeling isolated can happen quite starkly as you age.

From both of these visits, I wondered about opportunities for professional writers. U3A was set up in France and the UK adapted the model in the 1980s. There are now hundreds of local groups. On the one hand, U3A has a wonderfully responsive audience of seniors, eager to try their hand at all kinds of things. This is the place where you could run a slam poetry event or create a collaborative digital graphic novel for elders, and find a keen audience. That said, this is a volunteer model, so for writers trying to build a career and earn some dosh, it’s not quite the right setting. In the retirement village, a mix of internal and external funding would probably need to be secured. As ever, interesting to ponder…