Some words from Artist Jo Fong
What is the project?
All in all.
Making the spaces between people live and putting a few questions in the air, that’s kind of it.
I realise that this question, What will people need? is still relevant.
It was the question that was on my mind whilst in a studio at Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) with my colleague and friend, artist Sonia Hughes. The theatre had just closed, people were still doing hugs and I was completely aware this was going to be at least a year if not more.
On my way to the bus station to head back to Cardiff, I overheard a woman ranting on the phone to her mum about just being dropped from her job and rent and panic was at the forefront. For me, I’d just come out of a massive project called Ways of Being Together that had brought a collaborative team of 50 people to dance, converse and eat together with an audience of 200 people at Shoreditch Town Hall. The cast was extraordinary, people with mixed backgrounds, multiple family heritages and abilities. And the process and performance was about things that are really difficult to measure like connection, trust and empathy. There was a lot of difference in the room and this room was about hearing one another and in our difference practicing being together. The thing on my mind was all the work that countless people had put in – the attention that was happening in just these last 3 (or 30) years on diversifying art spaces was probably going to be shelved. In lockdown, I was devastated, everything I hold dear was not allowed and don’t even mention touch.
Face-to-face is how I rumble, the notion of ‘being with’ or simply practicing being with people, the being seen, heard, what are we noticing? All are high on my artistic agenda. How in hell’s name can I make this Zoom, Tik Tok, screen obsessed, unbodied phenomena into a space for honest, open interaction and what about a ‘felt-sense’?
Real life was everywhere, relationships were in deep focus, mothers and their children, couples approaching 20 year anniversaries were bringing things to a close and people were ill and dying. Care, what’s that then? What does Care look like? In the end Sonia had to take a step back from the project, caring for her elderly father with dementia, whilst in isolation became more than a full time job for one person. Much later she told me, if you’re caring for someone “you begin to meet yourself, and… you think you’re a nice person and then you find out you’re not.”
Even just days before writing this I’m still, after everything that’s happened, hearing of an apathy about what is possible to change.
So. Maybe this is a project born of both fury and love, the two in equal measure.
What Will People Need? invited four people to come into conversation between 24th March 2021 and 1st May 2021. The invitation asked, “What would we like to remember from last year, how things might need to change, how can we reconnect and what will people need?” And it went on… “How can racial justice, the climate, people’s welfare have a chance within a landscape of multiple crises? How can we share, hear or care? And will listening and connecting people hold a key to new ways within a pandemic of unbelonging?” So not really the small stuff. And yet within each small exchange are the roots, the lived lives of what matters to people.
Who are the new pillars in the community?
Already I was completely taken with the people who responded to the invitation. Looking back everyone had a bit of activist about them. Between them they were a celebrant, a counsellor, a caretaker, a person who lives in a modern commune, a woman who is Black, a person in their second language. We were queer, older, younger, a woman who campaigns for women and the archiving of women’s history, a woman who stands on the streets with banners, who shouts and tries to have conversations with power, a man who is flexing an idea about how to be a white man.
And among other things, a gardener, I’ll come back to the gardening.
We gathered around questions or prompts such as What is Community? Is it getting better? Or, In these times, what do you hold dear? And we sat in the unsolved, hearing one another, spending time together, noticing how this isn’t simply alive for us in the moments of being on zoom, but how it seeps into everyday life. Let’s say every person in the world is an expert. Within our identities, experiences and expertise we are experts, the project invited these experts to listen to people they know and people they don’t know. The group recorded the voices of people, family members, friends, colleagues and strangers. One person made space for conversations with the NHS staff that were at BAC delivering vaccines to the local community asking simply, “What are the questions for you today?” Another spoke with relatives in faraway places and another spoke with their neighbour, which weirdly can be more challenging than a stranger.
Like I mentioned, the difficult to measure stuff. So much of this work was invisible, we hold it in our bodies, our minds, among people close to us and our next actions.
Making the invitation to hear people is, I’ll say it myself, profound. It changes who and how we are, how we are together, how we live together. It’s subtle, quiet, sometimes awkward yet without a doubt powerful. In these moments, we can hear ourselves think, say things into being, we can join forces in commonality or question our bias’ and impulses.
Our group often turned up thinking “Oh, what another zoom meeting”, yet very quickly we slip into a kind of, take our time zone, a soft space that can also deal with the immediate or anger, frustration or sense of powerlessness or defeat.
On paper, I say “I’m an artist, in my artistic practice, I form community..” The invitation to bring a whole self is humbling. It made me think about how this can be done when the UK has problems with mental health, the issue of equality or class or… burden. The structures in place ask us to hide them or whisk a person off to a private one-to one supposedly trusted therapy. Don’t get me wrong, the benefits of therapy and asking for help are (if you get the right therapist or advice) massive, and should exist, Absolutely. This work I feel looks at how our communities and environments can hold us, how we can be held by many. In recent times the people, the alternative families and colleagues I turn to feel tangible, like a thing, an actual sensation of connectedness, it’s new. More recently, I’m thinking of the trauma for everyone, even Boris or Donald, traumatised. Definitely.
What can we do about this? There was a lot of talk of dismantling in 2020, and now we are beginning to get back into it, ‘re-build’, try and see where we left off. This is the moment! This could be a time of unlearning, sort out the values, shift power, explore new ways, make every life flourish. If you haven’t noticed, I’m an idealist, sometimes I get into difficulty but just the other day I was talking with Andrew the new Arts Council of Wales Agent for Change, who is on a two year contract by the way, not a contract til the end of his life, he said “We mustn’t forget the Utopia.”No-one has any idea about how a new way might look. So we are the designers. I’m rambling, off topic, hopefully not, this work feeds me, allows me a place to sort out what I think and practice saying it. Perhaps this is an outcome, someone like me finding a vocabulary and connecting with a quiet army of people who are able to keep saying things out loud, keep momentum, some buoyancy, some discovery of routes where change can happen through activities that feed us and give us pleasure. At this point do I need to explain my whole life? The Chinese Dad, schools in Doncaster, mixed-race complexity, being female, doing dancing and every little part of this diminishes a voice.
So what is the evidence of what took place, there are still posters around BAC, beautiful giant messages that get past some of the armour and the prompts take place in our organs, some of these have been kept and framed to keep reminding us all what we ought to keep thinking about. How can I practice saying the truth? What brings us comfort? How shall we begin again?
And a website www.whatwillpeopleneed.com
A place to hear some of the contributions people made in response to these questions, an archive of voices of this time. The site is still live, you can still contribute.
AND a garden
BAC’s planters were forlorn for much of 2020. Susannah from Permablitz London came to help create the garden. The plants are white blossomed, perennial, we literally planted a garden for a future. A pear tree that, like the one in my back garden, with very little or no help from me, on an annual basis manages to blossom and be a symbol for abundance in the form of too many delicious pears. Susannah was able to share her plant knowledge and about each plant’s very individual role for beneficial insects or the absorption of pollution, or what is edible (not just for humans) or the legumes that are bringing nitrogen to the soil, plants that make SOIL.
We planted a garden.
The core group and their guests in London and me and my guests in Cardiff. We put our hands in the soil around three prompts.
How can we acknowledge the loss?
Do we have the capacity to imagine?
Can we do this together?
You can see the photos HERE and some information on the plants. Me, I planted a white iris for Sonia’s dad and a white lily for my mum’s friend, both passed away in January this year.
The 1st May 2021 was the day we came together, the moment where the government said we were becoming able to see friends and relatives, it was significant, the weather was perfect, warm, there was a lightness and openness. I couldn’t be in London, though this felt right, people should be able to practice holding their own ‘parties’ and make invitations and invite important conversation. Our guerilla plot in Cardiff behind the Royal Oak pub near my home has become a place for people to gather. It’s July now, very soon me and my neighbours will be picking wild cherries together. I will bring the ladder and yogurt pots, and we’ll pick up litter and sow and plant a few things and chat about small things and the state of the world.
There is a plan that me and Sonia head to Battersea once again. We’re thinking when the BAC’s pear tree is in blossom next year we will gather everyone once again and finally meet in person. A garden party, and we’ll bring a show too and invite everyone, the show’s called Neither Here Nor There, it’s about a lot of things.
I realised my work is almost always about a sense of belonging.
I’m not sure what happened to the woman on the phone to her mum who had just lost her job.
If you’re passing through Cardiff in the next few months come and see the Wales Millennium Centre’s new exhibition called Your Voice. What Will People Need? will be part of 400 artworks made by Wales’ artists and people who don’t call themselves artists, yet they make art.
About Jo Fong
Jo lives in Cardiff and her creative work reflects the need in these times for people to come together. Her artistic practice is an evolving, collaborative approach which puts ideas around belonging or forming community in the forefront. The work is cultivated through face-to-face contact, it’s about connection, communication and how we live together.
She has presented performances at numerous festivals including Experimentica, Dublin Theatre Festival, Eisteddfod Genedlaethol, Cardiff Dance Festival, Chinese Arts Now, British Council Edinburgh Showcase and British Dance Edition. Recently Jo has been working on an archive of voices called What will people need? with Battersea Arts Centre, Marathon of Intimacies created and performed with dance artist Anushiye Yarnell and Jo and clown George Orange are planning to return to UK’s village halls this autumn with The Rest of Our Lives, it’s a kind of party.
Jo and artist Sonia Hughes have been working together for 10 years. Together they describe themselves as award-winning, middle-aged, provincial, international artists. Their collaborations include Ways of Being Together, Neither Here Nor There, To Tell You the Truth, Our Land, Nettles: How to Disagree? and The Sun’s Come Out.
Jo is a newly appointed Creative Associate at the Wales Millenium Centre.
Thanks to Lisa Mattocks, Katye Coe, Frank Bock, Christie Hill, all the contributors, people and supporters from BAC and Here and Now and my friend and colleague Sonia Hughes.