Young people know what’s excellent and what’s not – by Eloise Malone, Effervescent

Last month, I had an alcohol-fueled argument with a very nice man who had just curated an incredibly high-profile arts event, and hadn’t put in a single work that was created collaboratively or through socially-engaged practice.

It was one of those conversations where you realise half way through that what he’s criticising is a lame example of stuff involving tissue paper and glue and lollipop sticks led by someone standing at the front of the class, and what we’re talking about is genuinely, eye-bleedingly fabulous, collaborative arts practice informed by the ideas and experience of a bunch of young people with something to say and in need of a way to say it so that the right people take notice.  But he doesn’t know that practice exists because he’s already decided all work made by young people is rubbish.

Young people and children are immersed in a world full of high quality media, advertising, film, fashion, design, music and performances.  They’re not fools – they know what’s excellent, and they know what’s lame and limp and bland and embarrassing.  Young people have original and profound ideas. What we do at Effervescent is structure and “hold” (much of the time, in the psychotherapeutic sense) a process that supports those young people to bring those ideas and experiences to the wider world.  We draw their attention to the artistic choices they’re going to make, so they make them from a place of informed criticality.

We help them to develop the artistic skills to realise their vision, and to feel safe to use them.

Lynn Froggett, in her 2011 study for Gulbenkian on New Model Visual Arts Practice, talks about the Aesthetic Third as a crucial element of socially-engaged arts – it’s where the artist’s body of practice, and the young people’s ideas and energy and experience and talents come together to create an aesthetic conjunction which meets an audience’s imagination and attention in a moment that is magical, resonant, unique and extraordinary.

That art product is crucial: it’s a rare moment when young people genuinely have power.

The educational, social and emotional development of young people we work with is central to us, and we’re careful to work with young people to measure it in terms of distance travelled towards very demanding aims around recovery from painful experiences and disadvantage, but that development comes *through* the arts practice, not instead of it.  So many people talk about arts as a means to educate or better young people, as if young people are just there to receive instruction.  Participants shouldn’t slog through an intensive and emotionally/intellectually/physically challenging experience just to walk away – they want to show what they did, and offer something to the world, have something to keep to prove they succeeded.  Maybe for the first time.

For us at Effervescent, there is no process versus product.  Everything is both the process and the product.

Our big realisation in 2009, was that we were moving heaven and earth to create really interesting work, which was then performed one-off to a group of social workers or parents or in public, and then abandoned, never seen again.  Nobody in the arts world knew who we were, and nobody cared.  Since then we’ve made it a big part of our quality framework (it was all lines and squiggles in the beginning, but we do have one) to ensure that as many people have access to the work we make as possible.  Because their work is there online, the participants have used it months or years later as evidence to get into college or university or to take an apprenticeship, and the work has been viewed internationally and has won prizes, which has brought us more – and more interesting – work opportunities.

Visibility is the key to quality – if enough people see what young people are capable of, they’ll start curating it in art shows, alongside other high profile artists.  And maybe then socially-engaged practice with young people will be seen to create the beautiful, resonant, original art works we all know it’s capable of.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Effervescent supports children and young people to use art processes to make sense of their experiences, and to create art works which support target audiences or wider society to prevent, understand better, or positively react to these experiences from a fresh and authentic perspective.

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