I Am Festival artist partnerships 

2 July 2020

As part of I Am Festival, a number of schools were partnered with disabled & non-disabled artists. Creative Content Producer, Lynne Brackley, takes us through some of the work they did together

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Image credit: Treehouse School

What has it got to do with power? How does it connect with works in the gallery? What is new about it for you and your students? These were some of the questions I put to schools in A New Direction’s SEND Network who were taking part in the fourth I Am at Tate Exchange Festival.

From the obvious placards and superheroes, we started to reflect on other, sometimes subtler, manifestations of power. One of the key themes that resonated among those that work closely with young people who have additional needs was having choice. Another emerging strand was – and how could we have known how apt this was about to become? – the power of kindness.

As a network, we travelled through the logistical challenges of the festival towards the deeper creative challenges. A number of schools were partnered with disabled and non-disabled artists thanks to funding from the Mercers Foundation. They worked on these ideas:

  • Wow!
  • Multi-sensory
  • Communication
  • Finding a voice

Each project included activity that could be shared at the festival and also an in-school experience for students who couldn’t travel to Tate. In my role as Creative Content Producer, I simply had to see this in action!

Jenny and Josh from Graeae Theatre Company worked with students at Highshore School in Southwark to develop monologues responding to the festival theme of ‘power’. Using games, elements of forum theatre and devising techniques, the students drew on their own experiences of feeling powerful and powerless. I hadn’t meant to join in, but I found myself in a spontaneous dialogue with a student where she was daughter and I was mother, and we moved from a provocation to a reconciliation in 10 lines (pictured below). It was profoundly moving. The session leaders, the interpreters and the class teacher created such a safe space and scaffolding to enable students to try something and to find their best means of expression – be it sound, words, movement or dance. Home life, school, relationships, politics; all of these were explored in group work, captured and shared in different ways.

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Without getting carried away, I think there was power in the seeming simplicity of the activity. It gave space for quick reaction and more extended development of ideas. It is this offering of space and time that lies at the heart of their practice. You can read more about Graeae’s session here.

Jason Wilsher-Mills is an artist who can take you into new worlds of augmented reality where you can be whatever your imagination can conjure. He doesn’t travel light: often he is often accompanied on his journeys by huge inflatable figures. If you’re looking for ‘Wow’, this is it. But Jason is also a great communicator, and his workshops enabled him to be both inspiring and nurturing. You can read about his methods and experiences with The Garden and Woodfield Schools here.

The multi-sensory project was led by artist Justin Allder, who visited two schools for students with profound and multiple learning difficulties. Justin created a series of sensory portraits using stimuli chosen by the students and their supporting staff. In a further companion blog, he writes about the kinds of stimuli and interactions that proved more successful in opening up the students’ character and relationship with the world. He also investigates alternative approaches, were he to embark on the programme again. Click here to read more.

Finally, artists Sobia Khan and Christopher Sacre worked with Netley Primary School and Centre for Autism in Camden on the communication strand. They used the shapes and colours in the work of artist Dora Maurer as their stimulus, as well as a collage activity, projections and other objects of reference. After engaging in extensive co-planning, both reported that, once in the classroom, they took their lead from the students, with an emphasis on keeping activity simple and open-ended.

“Know when enough is enough and allow children to come to the task in their own way and in their own time”, says Sobia. Christopher agrees and adds that, “adapting to each child and working one-to-one within the group sometimes worked well.”

All the artists gave great importance to the role played by the teachers they worked with. Their willingness to support, and their use of techniques to help their students to understand and focus on the task was greatly appreciated. An great example of this was the use of colour flash cards to communicate simple messages and create a sense of familiarity when children were being introduced to new people and activity.

From my conversations with the artists, I have distilled some key learning that underpinned their practice:

  • Be clear: give visual signals, use minimal language, don’t overload.
  • Be flexible: have an open mind. Take the lead from the students.
  • Be available: build rapport with students and staff.
  • Be patient: allow time for processing.

While I Am At Tate Exchange Festival unfortunately couldn’t go ahead as planned, we hope you can enjoy some of the work created by the students and artists on our I Am At Home Festival pages.

Visit I Am At Home Festival