Message in a Bottle – Workshopping in a Pandemic by Naomi Kendrick
Naomi Kendricks shares with us her experiences as an artist working in Covid-times.
At the start of the year my role as a freelance artist looked completely different. In essence my job was to gather people together in gallery and community settings and Sure Start centres. These spaces were a place of exchange: exhibitions, artworks, materials, debate, stories and discovery. They were tactile, messy, busy and vibrant spaces, each one a shared experience of art and a route to togetherness that we will never take for granted again.
Of course, these physical spaces disappeared over night in March, the Gallery’s exhibitions and artworks retreated into gallery website, mounds of materials were left untouched, behind cupboard doors. And of course the people were gone, there was such silence.
Social isolation is not new, even though I work with large numbers of people with very different lives across multiple projects it is an issue that crops up repeatedly. The reasons for this isolation are many and complex, for example becoming a parent for the first time when your family is in a different country, being agoraphobic or waiting years for your new guide dog and having to rely on others to guide you outside of your home.
Covid brought isolation for everyone, in a way we could never have imagined. How could I reach people now, without the space, artworks, materials, gesture, touch?
One route was technology – making films, zoom and social media. Like most people, I have dabbled in these this year, however this has not always been the right route. Many of the adults I work with don’t use this technology for economic reasons, disability or personal preference. And everything the babies and early years children needed was physical; paper, scissors, drawing tools, reflective surfaces, textured fabric…we learned early on from our Sure Start partners that some families lacked even the basics such as paper and scissors.
My working method changed to delivering workshops by post, email and over the phone. To supply materials we formed a production line, filling the gallery’s atrium and sending them out in boxes to hundreds of families I may never see; a message in a bottle.
My approach to workshops has always been that they should be participant-led, a two-way conversation. Ideally each workshop is a space I make which gently nudges people towards their own ideas, making and discovering. I plan a workshop and over the years perhaps come to know how people may respond, but really most of the work happens in the moment, it is noticing, gesturing, and encouraging the people in front of me. This year, without people, I found myself working blind.
I shifted to working by memory, having to place faith in my previous experience. Materials chosen for babies and young children that I know other children responded well to in workshops past, films suggesting how to explore materials or mindfully make marks were ‘performed’ by imagining people beyond the camera. Positive feedback has come back out of the ether I am delighted to say, but I would have loved to have been there the moment each of those boxes of materials were opened, or when the first marks were made…
One place where I have been able to communicate directly with people in a way that is closest to the call and response of a ‘normal’ workshop is with phone calls. Phone calls were initially simply a necessity, I needed to audio describe artworks and read workshops to blind and visually impaired people who live alone or phone people who do not use or have access to technology. However, I have come to favour phone calls as a remote workshop method. A phone call allows for an immediate two-way conversation, less self conscious than zoom, a perfect combination of intimacy and non-visual anonymity.
These conversations can, and do, meander in interesting ways. We begin with artworks I have described or printed out and sent in the post, or an artwork the person I’m speaking with has made and described to me. Inevitably questions, stories, memories, the things and people we miss, all tumble out in response to those initial artworks, taking us further and further away from the start of the conversation where ”How are you?” rarely has a positive answer. Art takes us somewhere, sometimes it brings us face to face with our feelings and fears about the pandemic and at others it takes us somewhere funny, tender, beautiful. And I say we, because of course I am not a machine, these points of contact have been beneficial for me too.
There are of course disadvantages in working one to one in this way, removing the framework of a physical setting and other people, means that lines can become easily crossed, and it can be emotionally draining. Something I always have to keep an eye on. However, for me, the benefits far outweigh this. I am able to reach people who are not only bound to their houses temporarily because of Covid restrictions but long term, because of disability and mental health problems. I am able to tailor workshops to an individual’s specific needs and interests, to go on a significant journey with them in a way you can’t when working simultaneously with a group of people. Gaining such detailed understanding of different people’s relationships with and responses to art feels like both a luxuary and a place of learning for me.
Every call has to end and more often than not it ends with the question “when will we be back at the gallery?” “When will Grosvenor Street be open again?” “I really miss everyone, how long do you think it will be?” Each workshop is a community, one person on the end of the phone can do a lot, but can never replicate that.
One year and so many people have been reached by our work in the learning team at Manchester Art Gallery and the TLC Art Project, through technology, post, phone calls and boxes of materials. The strangest, hardest and most revealing of times to be doing this. I wonder what we will take from it when we have had the time to reflect and see what we have achieved?
Thank you to the following for initiating and running these projects, for the work, for the support and for what we have been able to give in spite of it all! Katy McCall Early Years Manager, Kate Day/Nicola Colclough Adult Learning Managers and Louise Thompson Health and Wellbeing Manager at Manchester Art Gallery and Alison Kershaw and Rae Story at the TLC Art Project.
Naomi Kendrick is a freelance artist.