The Faculty North: Socially Engaged Art In The Age Of Social Distance


The pandemic has been a disaster for traditional arts venues. But what impact has social distancing had on socially engaged art and artists? Flora Zajicek reports on The Faculty North, a project rising to the challenge…  

In 2020, one lockdown having been and gone, I optimistically decided now was the time to dive into a new (to me) and exciting city: Liverpool. Just one day after which… the second lockdown struck. From the confines of my flat full of boxes, I started desperately looking for ways to connect to people at this, pretty much, unprecedented time, in this new place. To my relief, I found applications open for The Faculty North, a project initiated by Heart of Glass and In-Situ, two community driven arts organisations based in the North West. An “alternative learning space for practitioners working in the intersection of arts and social transformation”, TFN offered weekly sessions, with discussions, speakers and workshops. Intrigued, I hastily applied.

One of my reasons for moving to Liverpool was because of its reputation for community-oriented arts – a concept that I instinctively feel should not have to exist, but which springs forth from a deep need for basic community support services. I put this to Paul Hartley, one of the co-founders of In-Situ, an interdisciplinary organisation working between arts practice, community engagement and ecology. He told me “the erosion of health and wellbeing services due to the last ten years of austerity has meant that artists end up taking on roles that should be done by social workers and youth workers. These community services just aren’t there anymore.”

“The socially-engaged arts scene took a huge hit in the last year”

Often plugging the gaping holes in our social care services, socially-engaged artists use creative frameworks to bring people together, to explore, heal, create, and express. With many practitioners working with groups in school settings, public buildings, outside spaces, and galleries, the socially-engaged arts scene took a huge hit in the last year. Hartley, along with fellow In Situ co-founder Kerry Morrison, told me about their artist friends who have stopped practicing during the pandemic in favour of finding a more stable income as carers, or in administrative roles. Hartley spoke to me about the feeling of “uselessness” as the pandemic put a stop to much of their work owing to its reliance on contact with people.

Indeed, since the beginning of the pandemic, the arts sector has been battered from all sides. The Centre for Cultural Value, a national research centre based at the University of Leeds, has shown that an estimated 55,000 jobs (nearly one third of all jobs in performing and visual arts industries) were lost between last April and September. While last summer saw the announcement of a Government fund of £1.57bn to support the cultural sector, in March an audit revealed that, of £830m in grants and loans so far allocated, only £495m had been paid out. Heart of Glass successfully applied for this emergency funding and, as a result, supported TFN’s contributing artists financially to be involved with the project – rare and valuable income, especially during COVID. Even large institutions who received significant government support packages were forced into making vast cut-backs.

“Freelancers and the self-employed are the most likely to be excluded from direct government support”

Despite receiving a support package of £7m, for example, Tate announced the reduction of their gallery workforce by 12% (equivalent to 120 full time roles) shortly after having made 295 redundancies in a restructure of its commercial enterprises arm. These are the lambs that the art-business executives sacrificed to appease the great god of Pandemic. On the other end of the spectrum, freelancers found their pots of funding dry up and commissions cancelled. As if this wasn’t enough, freelancers and the self-employed have now been shown to be the most likely to be excluded from direct government support. As Morrison says, “we, as freelance artists, have become invisible.” Indeed, Excluded UK has been tenaciously campaigning and creating alternative support networks for those excluded (hence the name) from otherwise relatively widespread financial support measures. Despite this community of more than 50,000 people, their work seems to have slipped under Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s radar and many continue to fall through the cracks.

Fast forward to spring, 2021: while the programme had to be delayed (for, by now, obvious reasons), three casual introductory sessions have taken place, and they set me thinking. There we were, 31 artists who have defined their work as in some way socially engaged, sitting in our bubbles, and interacting through a screen. We began to discuss some of the barriers that each of us had faced in our work during the pandemic, both practical and emotional. Stories were told of cancelled funding, job losses, and the paralysis of such precarious times. We quickly came up against what are, for artists of this kind, deeply existential questions: what does it mean to be a socially-engaged artist in a time of social distancing? How have artists working in this realm overcome the barriers of the pandemic to survive, let alone continue bringing people together?

“We went from being individuals in our silos, to making a collective, sharing survival techniques and resources”

In the act of sharing these worries, we began to swap ideas; solutions and a collaborative framework emerged, and it became clear that this group was one solution to our problems. We went from being individuals in our silos, to making a collective, sharing survival techniques and resources. One session involved contributors reading poems and texts that had somehow inspired them. A piece by Donna Haraway, professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, resonated with many participants. It was about finding connection with other humans and non-human species. Haraway’s idea of ‘making kin’ is a primordial one that perhaps speaks more clearly in the silence and isolation of multiple lockdowns.

The Faculty, therefore, became a place of solidarity and making kin as we all confronted the ongoing crises; in terms of health, occupations, frame of mind, planet. While the initial impact of COVID-19 on those working in the arts sector – especially freelancers or those in the category of laid-off gallery staff – has been undoubtedly bleak, the long-term impact of the pandemic on socially-engaged practice specifically, remains to be seen.

“Zoom is an imperfect short-term replacement for real-life, embodied social contact”

A Graduate Trainee supporting TFN, and artist in his own right, Calum Bayne points out that the transition of a socially engaged art project into the online sphere has both challenges and advantages. “Zoom has totally different accessibility to in-person gatherings, whilst it allows us to be spread out all over the place, it can also be an intimidating space where we self-censor more and the casual spontaneity of an encounter over the coffee break is lost.” Morrison told me that TFN has had to revert to a more traditional, lecture-based, format this year because of that, where it would have been preferable to create more space for discussion, challenging one another, and conducting group work. Indeed, endless zoom calls with their rigid 2d aesthetic and strict “one speaker at a time” form are an imperfect short-term replacement for real-life, embodied social contact.

Nevertheless, for me, there is something powerful in the existence of this collective, albeit in the imperfect virtual space of zoom. Institutional frameworks and corporate arts organisations have slimmed down, ultimately hampered in the same way as any other business during the pandemic (no means to sell sell sell); but this local, nonprofit-orientated, project brought to life by Heart of Glass and In-Situ, has provided a model of collective support in which artists don’t simply survive, but actually develop professionally in extremely challenging times for this sector.

“The heart that drives community-focused artists is still beating”

The damage that this pandemic has wrought on the cultural sector is deep and ongoing, but I have seen that the heart that drives community-focused artists is still beating. When life returns to normal, however, it’s time to take heed of the things we’ve noticed during the silence. For me, this includes the value and role of artists in communities as well as the role of communities in general. There is no question just how crucial social contact is to us all. As we emerge from our isolations, we can learn from a project like TFN, that making connections and kin with your local community, be it artistic, sporty, work-related, or religious, is an invaluable means of resistance, of finding strength as a collective in the face of a crisis and finding a way forward together.

Chrissie Tiller, one of the course leaders of The Faculty programme, is optimistic that Covid-19 may make us see that “large institutions and their buildings are no longer relevant in the same way.” She thinks the pandemic gives us a chance to reframe our view of the arts, “no longer thinking about our work in terms of audience development, but in terms of communal sustenance, embracing concepts of ‘collective care’, linking our values and principles to those of fellow activists; prioritising the commons, taking care of the health of our planet as well as those who live on it, putting ourselves at the centre of the efforts to bring about a different kind of world.”

It has been a tough year, but to humbly borrow the words of Audre Lorde: “pain is important, how we evade it, how we succumb to it, how we deal with it, how we transcend it.” The Faculty programme has now resumed in earnest and the 31 practitioners are regrouping, rekindling, and resisting. We have pooled our resources and found that we are a plentiful network. With freshly kindled fires in our bellies, we will continue to strengthen our connections, challenge, care for, and support one another.

Flora Zajicek

The Faculty – North was held online between 4 February to 23 March 2021

Image, courtesy Sarah Smith

Posted on 23/04/2021 by thedoublenegative