Over the course of seven months last year we delivered a partnership project with young people from Cambourne Youth Club. Here project artists Isabella Martin reflects on her experience of delivering for and with the participants:
Naming their ‘version’ of the Youth Club was an essential part of this, claiming these particular times as theirs. ‘Youthie’ – a word that mixes the stereotypical ‘fear’ of youth, with a joyful ending, something playful, a nickname turned into a real name.
Back in May, I went to Cambourne Youth Club to run a Circuit Partnership project working with the young people there. As with the beginning of any project, I had a plan laid out for how we were going to proceed. Sessions that would build into something, with big aims and all the good intentions those aims bring with them. But of course what happens when you leave the gallery spaces, the learning studios and usual frameworks? The moment this project commenced it was irrevocably altered, squeezed by the space of the Youth Club and participants into something different and ultimately better suited to this new context.
The sessions were held alongside the usual business of Youth Club, and offered as a drop-in attraction competing with table pool, music, eating toasties, drinking tea and just hanging out. This last function of the Youth Club is the most important. Many of the parks in Cambourne have signs restricting those over 14 from entering. That leaves the skatepark, the local Morrisons, and then this place, once a week. The Youth Club provides the only environment where these young people can have ownership over their space and work together as a group to maintain its sometimes unstable dynamic.
This project was thus intended to offer something alongside that. To create a space to explore art mediums and processes, to test things out, to experiment, and see where things led. Most importantly, the intention was to offer these art sessions in the spirit of the Youth Club and of the Circuit programme, to encourage the young people to take ownership of their learning, to build their self-confidence, develop supportive peer networks and thus instil a sense of autonomy in the participants.
Starting out a project with the intent for it to become peer-led is a strange task. How do you go about presenting something solid enough for people to invest their belief and time in, but also open enough to be shaped by their input? As a non-peer the hope is you can become an increasingly invisible but consistently reassuring presence, something tricky to instigate when you start as such an outsider, especially as it involves gaining trust, which is hard won in any new environment.
It’s impossible to take a plan into a new context and expect it to stay the same. It’s what makes things different, throwing ideas out into the real world, and seeing how they’re morphed and adapted to fit new contexts. When you enter a new space you have to find where you fit. This involves being happy to shed what you thought was important in the face of what is becoming progressively so. It’s what makes Circuit Partnership projects so exciting; new models of sharing, learning and being creative together happen out of this mix of good intentions, unpredictable environments and people who question everything.
Learning the technicalities of art processes became less vital in the face of the sessions being a space to retreat from the usual Club dynamic, a way to talk and to hang out in a different, more intentional way. Making art in this scenario becomes no less important, just different. It’s printmaking while talking about the weekend, it’s decorating a sketchbook as a way to test ownership, it’s designing a graffiti tag and testing out different identities through it, it’s rejecting the intentions of the provided materials in order to redecorate your BMX.
It takes quite a paradigm shift to reposition the role of the art in a project like this. People made things, re-made them, often destroyed them at the end, and left empty handed. How can you measure the value in this activity? The only thing for it was to make space for the young people to take these materials and ideas in their own directions, towards different purposes, which were sometimes unknown at the beginning, hard for them to articulate or even put into words.
If creativity is about experimentation, risk, exploration, and learning to be vulnerable, then the conditions for all these things to happen have to be established as part of a group effort and in a peer-led manner. Only then do people feel able to share and fail, test things out and make mistakes. In a Youth Club this is doubly challenging, where the social mores and expectations have such a rigid hold.
Gradually the ground shifted. Things that were made were taken away, materials were tested and sometimes pushed to their limits. Spray paint was used for things that were intended, and a few things that weren’t. Ideas resurfaced in subsequent sessions, to be tried out in other ways, on new surfaces. One of the sessions that marked this change was a warm summers evening when almost everyone was outside experimenting with spray paint, and besides the accidental redecorating of the Youth Club paving area, we produced tags, posters, and ideas in an atmosphere of possibility and companionship.
If failure is such an essential part of the process of creativity, then there needs to be space built in for it to happen, and then safety nets to catch and make sense of the results. But also, most importantly, there needs to be time. Having weekly sessions where things could fail and be retried was essential – the luxury of time in which to learn at different paces. This was balanced by the necessary pressure of the project timescale, the question of where it was all going. The young people came up with the answer themselves through their preoccupation with the identity of the Youth Club, and by extension, themselves. What makes this place a community? Through spray painting and stencil experiments the idea emerged of having a logo, something to pin their identity to. Naming their ‘version’ of the Youth Club was an essential part of this, claiming these particular times as theirs. ‘Youthie’ – a word that mixes the stereotypical ‘fear’ of youth, with a joyful ending, something playful, a nickname turned into a real name.
The design process was a volatile mix of offering and arguing, voting and discussing. Out of it emerged a logo, and a hoodie for everyone decorated with this new sign of belonging. This spilled over into making something to mark the territory of the Youth Club, and together we designed and spray painted a frontispiece for the bar, everyone taking it in turns to use the Youthie font to display their name.
The architecture of a community was always in place, but this project offered a way to mark it, to make it visible and thus hopefully more sustained. To be there to start a process that marked a sense of membership and belonging. In the end, our role became that of background facilitators to something we’d helped set in motion, something that morphed into a project led by the intentions of the participants. They reshaped the framework we offered into something that fitted what the Youth Club wanted and needed. So despite the sadness of saying goodbye to this environment which we’d been let into for a short while, it felt right to leave, and let the celebratory pizza take our place at the end of the project.