When people gather for a ‘purpose’, it can take a while before they establish whether they share similar perspectives on that purpose… why are we here? what is this about? where are we heading, and how do we get there? To some extent disarming the tensions of navigating this tricky terrain, international gatherings offer the momentum of curiosity, the stimulation of relationship building, and the intensity of a reawakened awareness that your own world is a tiny and context-specific ecology, amongst an immense diversity of equally complex and specific other worlds.
The Durham ‘Critical Mass’ international gathering on community-based arts and health in June this year bore these three hallmarks, especially for those of us who were newcomers to the flock. However there were aspects of this gathering that marked it out as intriguing and unusual, even beyond face value.
I’ve been to many arts and cultural sector gatherings over the years, with strong agendas towards visioning, partnership building and networking, and there have always been moments at those events which jar: you realise that assumed similarities in outlook and priorities are just assumptions, and the differences – even subtle – begin to open up as dark corners or treacherous muddy puddles to be avoided if the dialogue is to continue. Hackles can rise, stubbornness grow, and the result is often a slightly unsettling climate shift, with damp mists thickening over marshy stretches separating different perspectives, or else a sudden encounter with a quicksand pool: Can we just get our terminology sorted please, before we go any further? – into which the dialogue is then irretrievably subsumed.
But this just didn’t happen at ‘Critical Mass’. We reminded ourselves intermittently that our perspectives are diverse, our experience is not necessarily shared, our terminology will sometimes be mutually confusing, and our priorities are inevitably various. However, throughout the week of events, participants managed to retain a shared wavelength, with an apparently unwavering signal strength, which accommodated the diversity. We even laughed about these differences together, and brushed them off as insignificant for the purpose of the hour. It seemed that in conceiving and planning collaborations people were working less to a business partnership negotiation model, and more to an international diplomacy model: a ‘UN of A/H’.
The focus, then, was on walking common ground (through the mists) together, in order to map out and build a shared reservoir of good will and commitment, on which to draw as needed. Skilfully facilitated by our co-participants Mary Robson and Mike White, we were able to locate any guiding waymarkers that we shared, and use these as pivotal points of perspective, and ultimately as stepping stones across the terrain.
These stepping stones included shared priorities – especially a quest for social justice; openness to sharing intellectual property without resort to protectionism; an awareness of our responsibility to include the excluded – both in relation to arts and health debates, and in activity and influence universally; and being prepared to invest time and effort to furthering arts and health as an international field. I was aware of a rare preoccupation with purposeful, practical outcomes, characterised by initiative-taking and personal commitment to actions, bedded in a shared, fundamental value-set. I think we all knew that we shared what was coined a ‘pathological optimism’: a belief in, and a commitment to find, the small, human steps that become the giant steps for humankind – to eventually change the world order.
Many plans were seeded and commitments made by the end of the week, and it feels as if our shared pathological optimism may carry most of these through to fruition; some may even be the beginnings of the crucial small steps. But aside from what may result from our collaborations, there may be some learning from the Critical Mass model about how diverse agents can collaborate to move a broad sector forward. Maybe we can pull others from more far-flung corners of the field together using the concept of a shared value base as the core to the work, and side-step the never-ending and absurd splintering of terminology and delineations along conceptual lines – who thinks what means what and why. Maybe in marking out our way forward we can lead with the right brain, and heart of our work, and not let the left brain, and our systematising heads, conjure up potholes and quicksand on the path.