I had the good fortune to be selected to attend the Novi Sad School of Participation last week. This EU School of Participation is led by Walk The Plank in partnership with a number of organisations across Europe with support from Creative Europe. Schools are, or have already taken place in Plovidiv (Bulgaria), Kaunas (Lithuania), Novi Sad (Serbia), Coventry (UK) and Graz (Austria). Each school has a theme and for the Novi Sad School it was 'Making Art That Matters', bringing together artists/activists/community workers to discuss protest movements and groups and how these are changing the tone of art.
The week was organised and led by Liz Pugh of Walk the Plank and a great team in Novi Sad, including Željko Grulovich and Filip Markovinović of MMC LED Art/Shock Cooperative and the plan was for all of 24 participants from Austria, UK, Estonia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Armenia to all be together in Novi Sad for one week also linking with Novi Sad as European City of Culture 2022. I was looking forward to going, having visited Montenegro many years ago in the early 1980's. Sadly current circumstances across the world meant that this was not possible and so we met via Zoom.
I think we were all concerned that this would lessen our experience of the school, and whilst it definitely gave us a different experience, it did not lessen it, thanks to how well it had all been structured.
The week kicked off with a presentation by Andrea Palašti, Shock Cooperative artist and lecturer at the Academy of Art in Novi Sad.
"Think of something you really want to complain about!"
"We're off to a good start" I thought, after all we have a well resourced library of examples of all that is crap in the world as a source for complaint. What I was also thinking though, was, "who has access to that library?" There was my answer, that is what I continue to really want to complain about - inequality. It hasn't changed and why would it when the gaps in society continue to get wider?
We learned about sustained organisations, sporadic actions, refusal and boycott marking anti-war ideas and movements in Serbia during the war. We discussed the subversion of symbols and power structures, humour and satire and "AEST-ETHICS". As Andrea talked and we discussed as a group the examples that were shared with us, I felt very humbled by their lived experience of war. Hearing how many actions were never publicised or talked about in the mainstream media - the silencing by those in power. How could I not then, alongside that, think about recent events here in the UK as the government seeks to silence protest in all its forms? How the media, is complicit in misdirection and dilution of narratives, we only have to look at the recent Reclaim The Streets protest following the tragic and avoidable death of Sarah Everard (RIP) and the Black Lives Matter protests, both here and in the USA.
We learned about and discussed the principles of project management, working in public spaces, maximising impact, sustainability - from a financial and a mental health well-being perspective. We discussed ethics, aesthetics -v- context, protest -v- persuasion. We also had the opportunity to try out some of the topics of discussion. One was an accidental art and mask making workshop with Željko Grulovich and Filip Markovinović. We were given 2 choices of subject - environment and the water or covid and the future of healthcare. Most of the participants opted for the first choice, with only one group opting for the second, which is the group I was with.
Using the recognisable symbol of the red cross, not only a symbol of free healthcare worldwide provided by the Red Cross, but also the symbol painted on the doors of plague victims in the 1600's. A black background replacing the traditional white to represent death along with multiple small black crosses, and of course the now all too familiar medical face mask. The shape of the mask hinting at the face armour of bygone medieval armies.
The mix of masks created across the groups was mind blowing. Plus we only had 15 minutes to discuss our ideas and 15 minutes to make them!
I mentioned that we learned about the principles of project management and during that lesson we were also given a task. To do a site visit to scope out where we wanted to hold our public art event. My original plan was to incorporate some accidental and disobedient art, inspired by the Shock Collective, with a group of housing tenants. However, due to Covid and only having a couple of hours to do this, I had to think on my feet about what I could do in the village that I live in.
The village I live in is divided by a B road that is used for people travelling in either direction to one of two towns. There is a speed limit of 30mph which is often ignored by drivers. There are two bus stops on that road, including school buses and there is a long and very narrow path that runs for 2 miles into the nearest town. With barely any verge pedestrians are worryingly close to the traffic which travels at speeds over 60mph once out of the village. The subject of traffic speed became my focal point.
We ended the week with a collaborative film. All participants were given the same brief - to create a film about environmentalism and water. Again we were put into groups to discuss our ideas and form a plan for how were going to action this. All the 24 individual films were then being collated and created into one long film by Filip Markovinović.
Our group made up of myself, Melissandre Varin, Amy Hegarty and Helena Mak discussed our individual and collaborative ideas:
Water sources - putting water back into the waterways
Garbage on beaches and the personification of water
Bodies as water, body of water
Mouths - bridges as mouths
All the artists then went out and filmed at the same time across all 6 countries. I found this the most challenging as it took me completely out of my comfort zone. I am not a filmmaker, nor a performer and I was having to do this in my village in plain sight! I felt quite self conscious at first but once I got started I stopped worrying about what my neighbours might think at the sight of me lying on wet muddy ground or paddling in bare feet and really enjoyed myself. As I connected my skin with the water, mirrored the water flowing into the mouth and gave back water, listened to the bird song as it was interrupted by the flow of traffic, looked up at the newly built houses, I felt grateful for this small oasis of flowing water as a family ducks appeared on the other side of the bridge.
Meeting Jay Jordan, co-founder of Reclaim The Streets and The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination was definitely a highlight of the week.
"everything that has a cell can feel"
It would be difficult not to be inspired by Jay as he talked about: the importance of pleasure, revolutionary carnivals, planting trees in the middle of motorways, climate camps, tools of disobedience and how "confusion is more powerful than confrontation", the rebel clown army and "...you cannot defend a territory if you don't inhabit it". There was so much content in Jay's presentation that I cannot do it justice here by trying to unpick it. His involvement and the continued activism and collaborative community living in Zad, "a liberated territory against an airport and its world." had all of us wanting to join that community and the blog is well worth a visit - here
If I could bottle the sheer energy and inspiration that I felt during last week I would. Those moments where I doubt my work and my purpose. Or those moments where I let fear get in the way of action. Those are the moments I would reach for that bottle and remind myself of the power of collaboration, community, disobedience and activism