The Right Questions

An interview with Cathriona Bourke, Young People’s Curator at Tate Liverpool by Marina Castledine, Circuit National Manager June 2015    

A series of interviews are being conducted with Circuit staff to unpick conditions that make change happen – on an individual, organisational and sector level. To represent the context of each interview and that of the programme at each site, interviews are being shared in full. The honesty that defines this series is in itself a condition for change.

MC: So the reason I stopped talking and asked to start recording is because…

CB: …we were talking about voice: where and how young people’s voice is being heard and improving that through the planning process for Spring 2016 [a new exhibition programme at Tate Liverpool].

MC: Yes and there was something about working with Assemble that you hope can free up that process. So I wonder if you can recap on that?

Assemble Group Photo 2014 © Assemble

Assemble Group Photo 2014
© Assemble

CB: Assemble have the language and authority that speaks to the curatorial side of the organisation but also to kids in Glasgow – which I think is really very helpful at the minute.

MC: And what is it about Assemble that enables them to speak to curatorial and young people?

CB: The two people who are working with us are artists of some standing with an academic background, with a whole language that speaks to curatorial staff; but because they are working with the public and different age groups, they also effectively communicate with people about what they want and are able to listen. I think it will help shift how the process is working; it has blown away a lot of the planning that was constricting things. So, for example, there has been since the beginning, this idea that we would have young people working together with senior staff to develop this programme.

MC: And that was a positive outcome from Blueprint (a festival at the gallery last year, by and for young people)?

CB: Yes. It was suggested by our Artistic Director and eagerly taken up by Tate Collective Liverpool [our young people’s group]. But an issue with meetings between young people and staff was young people’s confidence in speaking up. And even in thinking about what the answer was, and knowing what the questions were.

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MC: Did you have someone chair those meetings?

CB: Yes, the Artistic Director.

MC: And how many people were in the room?

CB: There were about 10.

MC: So 10 including Tate Collective?

CB: Yes.

MC: And what was the balance between senior staff and young people?

CB: About 5 Tate Collective and 5 staff.

MC: And in a fairly formal meeting room? I think this is a fairly formal room…

CB: It was in this very room!

MC: Ok. And did you have someone facilitate those meetings? Or was it really like a standard senior management meeting that Tate Collective had now been invited into – which is an amazing opportunity – but nothing was shifted in terms of space or structure to bring them on board? They just responded to that invitation?

CB: Yes. There wasn’t any real thinking about how they might be able to articulate their own ideas or things needing to be changed. Up until that point it felt that people, including myself, didn’t make suggestions. And I wasn’t really making suggestions on my own I was trying to include the voices that I had heard outside the meeting…

MC: Yes, trying to pull those voices in…

CB: But, I had the sense there was a ‘right’ thing. And then there were notes from the previous sessions, but the young people didn’t seem to recognise those notes. And very quickly it became this is what is happening.

MC: So although there are young people’s voices in the room, and although there are issues with them being silent, they suddenly become representative of all young people and that is not necessarily…

CB: Yes and it was hard to involve other groups at this stage, because of being into delivery mode – we had to start nailing it down due to schedules.

MC: Ok, so there is something about speed that keeps coming up in what you are describing. You may have done a bit of chatting in a meeting, but then a decision needs to be made, and it needs to be made there and then, and as a result of that you then go into delivery mode – as a simplified description?

CB: Yes.

MC: And my understanding of how you work in peer-led practice is much slower. So there is something about the way decisions are made at senior management level and a much more consultative, slower process, (although I don’t think a consultative process has to be slow), that is crucial to peer-led practice and those two things just jarring against each other?

CB: Yes, because I don’t think Tate Collective felt the conversations were going to be thing…

MC: They were ideas, they were sketching things out…

CB: And it wasn’t a conversation with the engagement there would be if they were working with an artist – it was very much ‘what do you want to do’…

MC: You used the words tease out – and I think there is an amazing role that artists and other facilitators have in working with young people to stimulate ideas, develop their ideas, so that it is from them but through facilitation. It’s that whole – if you went and asked people in a regeneration project what they want in their town centre, you would have a swimming pool and a bouncy castle – and alongside those facilities often what is actually being said, is something else about public space and play and a whole other load of issues…

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CB: Yes, so there wasn’t the space to have really good questions asked about that, to take it to the next level of conversation. It was straight to the end product with a date. So it was scheduling. And this started with even less of a lead than you would for regular exhibition.

MC: So there was already pressure on it?

CB: Yes, even if it was a question of a curator selecting works from the collection, there would be pressure on it. And it was a slower process then being introduced to a tightened timescale.

MC: Remind me again when it started?

CB: The first meeting was in January, so a little over a year. It is opening in March. So those were the concerns up until that point. And the reason why I think Assemble might transform the process is because they are the artist’s voice. They are the right people to do that job of articulating, questioning and driving forward. And after the first meeting, they suggested the way they would like to work with Tate Collective, rather than be given a brief to be commissioned to build something; it was to mentor Tate Collective.

MC: Wow

CB: Yes, obviously they would help with the design process, but the space for the young people at the gallery would be created as a model of the conversations they facilitated. They will look at the tensions between ‘I want a gallery that allows me the opportunity to develop as an artist and arts professional’ and ‘I want a gallery that is accessible to all young people, that spreads ideas about art and is open and engaging’. The tension between those two things. ‘I want to put on things that impress other artists and I want to put things on that will make connections with a broader youth culture and what’s in the gallery.’ So, ‘I am at the core of what’s happening and have been included in those conversations and using those to create the model.’ I feel like that turns things back – from we are building an area here and there, to we are building what comes out of those conversations.

MC: So the organisation has confidence in the artists and the artists are able to facilitate the young people, so they act as a translation almost, between those two different groups. Not a product brief, a process brief, which is fantastic. And it sounds like it is inherent in their practice. But they also have the brief to meet the deadlines, so the organisation can be confident. And they are artists. So all of a sudden what you are doing is putting artists in the middle of things. When we say it like that it sounds a bit obvious that there is a role for artists, at least for artists who have a socially engaged practice based in young people or conversation or communities.

CB: They are architects. And in a way I think that is more important. Because for architecture one of things you do is identify the functions, the needs of the building and you build to do that, to fulfill that need and serve those functions. And they are really good questions. I was so happy after meeting them! So one of their questions after meeting Tate Collective, was….as I mentioned earlier Tate Collective now identify themselves quite differently than they did as Tate Forum., as young professionals….so one of their questions was along the lines of ‘If Tate Collective is the answer, what is the question?’ or ‘What is is that you are doing that you want to do?’

tatecollective

MC: I think that is brilliant, we could use that across the whole programme. ‘If Circuit is the answer, what’s the question?’ It’s a very powerful question. And the fact that they are architects, as you mentioned, so what is it about architectural practice, is a whole other conversation. Yes, it is based on user need but there is something about space – we could really deconstruct that. Ok, so that was one of their questions….

CB: They worked back through a series of questions. I would have to go back through my notes, but things like, ‘what is Tate Collective, what do you want it to be?’ And they felt those were good questions, because it went back to what you want it to be and allows you to mentally block out what it currently is. So I think we can work with them to look at how the Steering Group meetings are working. Because one of the things I was trying to do was look at those meetings and being there to prompt their voice, but…

My concerns were about who was being heard and who was being listened too. Because there is a desire for a new way of working which is based on peer-led practice…

MC: Yes, but also it is about an invitation to an existing structure. So it’s a new invitation and a fantastic opportunity, but into the existing structure. So from an organisational point of view nothing’s shifted to accommodate that new voice.

CB: Yes, although there is a document that mentions terms of reference, or rationale, that came out of a meeting when things weren’t pushed enough, but the Director was saying we have this rationale, and Assemble were saying – if you work out an honest statement about what Tate as an organization expects, wants and needs from this; and if the young people can work out what they need we will bring those two together. So there was complete agreement and that is what is going to happen.

MC: So they almost became like a mediator?

CB: But it is a mediator that has the respect of both parties

MC: So has the Director said anything as a result?

CB: He is absolutely delighted, because this is exactly what he wanted all along. And they aren’t using language around peer-led practice, they are using language more familiar with commissioning.

MC: So Assemble have now been commissioned and there will be aspects of Spring 16 that are part of Circuit?

CB: Yes. On the Tate Collective open day for new recruits this summer, I hope we develop a framework which helps us ask questions, not just what do you want to do.

MC: It would be a wonderful resource to come out of this learning process, with a set of alternative questions to ‘What do you want to do?’ That as a resource for the network and other organisations working with young people would be fab.

So the questions might be very specific to this project but could increase awareness of the issue with the question ‘What do you want to do?’ It is a non-question. And even more than that I think it can be, in my experience of working not only with young people but also with vulnerable adults, it can be a really destructive question. To be able to answer that means that you have to have some kind of experience and understanding of choice and ideas. Often that is almost the definition of being in a vulnerable situation. You don’t have choices and you are not necessarily in a position to be having ideas. It is a very privileged place to be coming from and that question therefore is a privileged question to be asking.

CB: And ultimately if asked with the implicit promise that you can do it, it’s a dishonest one because it doesn’t say the other half of it.

MC: Absolutely. And that kind of goes to the heart of peer-led practice.

CB: So, I hope I am not over emphasizing what they can do, but I do think the power of asking the right question and being the right person who can be heard at that time, is a key thing. It is the thing that makes things happen. It is the thing that shifts things.

MC: This is so valuable. Thank you.

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