How do you fully engage a young person who may or may not come back to a term-time drop-in session each week? What do you do when you only have 10 minutes to make a connection with that person and how do you keep building on their interests, ideas and creativity when the group dynamic can more persuasive, more powerful and participation easily disrupted?
These were the key questions I had to address as an artist working with Year 11 students during alternative education drop-in sessions at Pixel, Circuit MOSTYN’s partner at West Rhyl Young People’s Project (WRYPP). The partnership itself has been ongoing over the past three years and I joined as a filmmaker in October 2015 to facilitate the completion of a skateboard video begun by two of the group – they already had great “blue sky” footage shot on a GoPro from a scooter. Like a number of the group, they were technically proficient (having undertaken the BCS ITQ Level 2 Certificate at the centre), but lacked confidence and direction. They also wanted to add a soundtrack and issues of copyright soon arose after they found the perfect track for the tone of their piece – OPM’s copyrighted, Heaven is a Halfpipe. This eventually led to one of the members performing & writing original music, facilitated by Pixel’s manager, Chris Coyle, and artist and musician, Dion Hamer, who came into the project in February 2016. By then, music had become the other established theme, and Dion facilitated the first draft of their green screen music video in time for screening at their Keeping it Rhyl Skate Celebration Event in March.
Back in October though, after an informal meeting with group members, and to open up ideas around soundtracking, my first session’s plan was based on a tightly scheduled Found Sound workshop, with an introduction to the basics of using a handheld Zoom recorder. I soon realised however that I was way off the mark in how I had imagined that morning would be, especially when we suddenly took a mid-session walk to the prom! This was great to get everyone out into the fresh air, and to change the energy and group dynamic (it was also the perfect opportunity to use the Zoom at the amusement arcade – sounds subsequently used in the green screen music video score), but the whole morning had been full of so many diversions and interruptions that I knew I had to re-think my engagement practice, not only to “go with the flow” to fit Pixel’s organic approach, but also to find a completely new way of working; a workshop built around one central theme just wasn’t possible within the unpredictable parameters of the sessions. This was a problem not least because the very success of the drop-ins lies in the fact people can do just that, drop-in and out at any given time – the ad hoc atmosphere itself provides the safe space for the young people to be in; they receive crucial social and well-being care, as well as mentoring by the Pixel staff and these are the reasons the regular members do come back each week. But how could I introduce a focused, concentrated space to enable, and sustain, meaningful creative engagement within that?
As I got to know the young people over the first few weeks, I came up with a strategy after asking myself, “If that person comes in right at the end, or for only 10 minutes, what do I know about his/her interests to engage them immediately?”. My original workshop plan now seemed wildly ambitious, but it was useful in showing me what was actually feasible as opposed to an ideal. I also knew by then who were self-starters, with the technical ability to achieve their goals (i.e. the two members who immediately began the first edit of the skate video with great enthusiasm and who continued to collaborate throughout the project). For the others, I planned at least 6 ‘micro-engagement projects’ each week, specifically focusing on individual interests, adapting them as the weeks went on. As well as addressing Pixel staff needs and maintaining their organic approach, these were specifically geared to limited attention spans, erratic attendance and diverse abilities, all with the aim of achieving at least one goal per session for each person. The core, personal element I didn’t change or modify however was my own belief that, to really engage with your own creativity, you have to trust your own viewpoint, your own instincts and your own unique way of experiencing the world. There is no right way or wrong way and no-one else can tell you what it is. One of my own keys into that creativity is to use the camera – working through the viewfinder to “push the lens” to it’s technical limits – to try and portray the essence of what I ‘see’, exploring the space ‘between’ the image, like a visual poem. I shared this way of working on an individual basis with all members of the group and encouraged anyone who wanted, whenever they wanted, to pick-up the camera and to really trust their own instincts as they looked through the viewfinder. Trying to find what interested, intrigued or involved their own unique perspective. The subsequent images the young people took, almost privately amid the roar of the sessions, are among the highlights of the project for me.
Regardless of finding a relatively successful way to work within the drop-ins, it was never easy. In fact, sometimes it did feel impossible and, on two memorable occasions, I thought that the whole collaboration was over; the first where only blind faith and optimism, Dion’s green screen and Luke’s genius in inventing the ‘Pixel Luge’, saved the day (see blog below);
The other was three hours before the skate event was due to start, where, out of the blue, there was only anger in the room, no engagement, no energy from most of the group and no clue as to how to go forward – that was the only time I had to go for a walk around the block then come back in to start afresh. I still don’t really know what happened and I had the chance to discuss it later with the staff, but we all did pull together and got back on track for the event that night. And I hope that everyone on the project feels that we were all able to be open and resolve most of the problems that cropped-up on any given day.
I have tried to encourage everyone to blog but it just wasn’t possible in the sessions. Instead, they preferred to feedback their titles, ideas and images for this blog (i.e. ‘Keeping it Rhyl’, which was used as the theme of their celebration), all of which became a focal point on Monday mornings. Seeing themselves and their work reflected back helped us regroup and discuss next steps needed in their projects that morning, and could be incorporated into the ritual sharing of YouTube videos. It also became a way to asses their images and progression within the national framework of the Circuit programme. I now know that this may not have been the proper use of the site, but it really did enable a wider understanding of what their contribution in this partnership was about, it also helped keep the engagement moving forward.
Overall I feel we achieved much more than I originally thought possible within the sessions and that my way of working with the group and staff have gone a long way for individual ideas and creativity to come to the fore, albeit slowly, in sometimes difficult circumstances. For their part, the young people always rose to their own challenges, not only for the big highlights like the skatepark event, but also in moving forward every week with their ideas and projects. From writing a soundtrack to using a MacBook, making a slideshow, using found sound, fully engaging with contemporary and traditional art or showing their work publicly – all of these were first-time experiences for most.
Looking back now, it would’ve been useful to have spent the first session just observing what actually happened rather than basing my initial plan on a short meeting with the young people the week before. I would now, again with the great luxury of hindsight, liaise with the staff to have focussed one-to-one sessions, perhaps every 2-3 weeks, to be factored-in, away from the dominant ‘group hub’ of the drop-in. I think this would have allowed individual voices and needs to be addressed much more quickly and directly, and perhaps the sway of a sometimes oppressive group dynamic to be held at bay, enabling more measured, concentrated participation overall. The ‘micro-engagements’ did however allow us to cover an array of pre and post-production filmmaking and photography techniques including Final Cut Pro, iMovie, Photoshop, iPhoto, Zoom sound recording and green screen techniques and programming a Raspberry Pi, among others – all matched to individual ability and working as a team to explore their ideas. Pixel’s Chris Coyle & Gareth Davies facilitated the use of Adobe’s Creative Suite including using Illustrator to make the skate celebration poster with the member most interested in marketing the event. It’s hoped that the musician in the group will work on Logic Pro software with Chris to record another track for the green screen video. Members of the group, staff and myself all had space to introduce skate, music and art videos but it was difficult, (Keeping it Rhyl – The Verdict). I felt it took much longer than it needed to build trust and confidence with the young people, and perhaps sometimes with the partnership, as we inched forward every week within the constraints of the ever-changing group, particularly when long absent members reappeared and disrupted the dynamic again.
As we head towards the end of the school year, Pixel is gearing-up for the summer drop-in sessions and we’re working together to consolidate the work achieved so far. I’ve been liaising with the new Glitch Festival Coordinator, Michael Powell, at MOSTYN, with plans for him to visit WRYPP for meetings with both Pixel and their LGBT group, Viva, for inclusion in the festival in October 2016. There are plans to screen the skate and music videos, both with original soundtracks, at the festival too (though group consensus is that the music video needs another track and we’re working on this now!). There are also several large format photographs to be selected by group members and I’m collating all their photographs, sound work, videos and music tracks onto individual pen drives for personal use in the future, perhaps for a portfolio or showreel.
And we have packed a lot in! Two city trips: one to Manchester in November to shoot extra skate footage at Projekts MCR skatepark and a visit to Manchester Art Gallery (Art & Skateboarding); and, despite the logistics of the exam timetable, everyone managed to make the trip to Liverpool on 13th June, planning part of it and, again, filming new skate footage at the Evertro skatepark. We also had a great visit to Tate Liverpool (thank you everyone there for making us so welcome!), where we explored Frances Bacon’s Invisible Rooms, Constellations, finally relaxing in the the Clore Room.
Five of the original seven Pixel regulars are really enthusiastic about continuing through the summer and becoming involved in the Glitch Festival in October. This will be crucial in keeping-up momentum & avoiding summer term drop-off and the danger of NEETS. The young people could very much be supported within the Pixel/MOSTYN/Glitch setting with extra mentoring and initial support as well as continued support in any college plans beyond the summer – the key will be to keep a connection to the young people whatever they decide to do.
In May I also had the chance to work one-to-one with the only young woman in the group, when we went on an amazing trip to MOSTYN. She is making plans to go to the next Glitch music night and evening session, initially supported by myself, but with the aim for her to becoming a core member of Glitch (another blog still to be written-up…). This support and opportunity has been offered to all the young people. The gallery visit to MOSTYN in February was the place where we did have that focused, concentrated time, both to engage with the exhibitions and to connect to that core creativity for a much longer period. And many people seemed to thrive within that space, with requests to go back as soon as possible. Other ideas from Pixel for summer engagement include the possibility of holding a drop-in session at the skatepark itself, perhaps mentoring & supporting the original skateboarder to enable filming with a wider group of other skaters there. The idea of having a music studio within the centre itself still has to be approved but, in the meantime, there’s a possibility for Dion to run a mini-recording workshop mentoring and supporting the musician in the group, who, in turn, would be supported to run his own workshop at one of the Pixel summer sessions and/or at Glitch. It’s all to play for…