Some years ago, I found myself with long-term collaborator, artist Mark Storor, in a hospital room in Poole, UK, waiting to be interviewed by the Dorset Research Ethics Committee. We were there because we were working with a group of expectant fathers on Boy Child, a public engagement project funded by the Wellcome Trust exploring perceptions and attitudes towards maleness. It was the result of a year long arts collaboration between boys in primary and secondary schools, fathers, fathers to be, young offenders, health service staff and older men and was performed on Father’s Day 2006 to public audiences at Southwell Park, Portland (Guardian theatre blog).
After a brief but thorough discussion, we were given the go-ahead. The interview was the culmination of a lengthy application procedure seeking permission to work with the expectant fathers which had delayed our project, incurring unanticipated costs on an already over-stretched budget. In over 25 years of working in health and social contexts however, I have had this experience only once and despite its practical inconvenience, it provided a valuable professional milestone. It set a standard for a rigour of ethical approach in all contexts which has been a benchmark for me as producer.
Risk-taking and original work can be made in a community setting, but only with artists who understand the ethics of participation, and strive for excellence as much in the process as in the final outcome. Alongside the artists, producers must understand the importance of carefully establishing relationships, and be alert to the same kinds of ethical protocols as medical researchers. Patient choice, truthfulness, honesty and respect for the dignity of individuals are paramount. In a medical context, seeking informed consent is key to achieving sound ethical practice. In the realm of art however, this is as essential, but perhaps more complex. The outcomes emerging from an artistic process cannot be predicted; art can surprise and astonish, it can reveal the unexpected. Consent can be sought about how, when and what we may we doing, but not about how this may make us feel.
I would suggest that art is essential in these settings because art can create a parallel space to explore our most difficult moments. When such work is led by artists who combine vision with an artistic practice which listens intently to the contributions of participants, the results can be powerful and tender, revealing with great clarity profound insights into the most difficult subjects. Death, suggested one of the children in For the Best (Unicorn Theatre 2009 & Unity Theatre Liverpool 2010), is simply a door in a room that we have not yet noticed, and won’t until our eyes adjust to the dark.
I remember the father who, at the end of the project Boy Child admitted that at the beginning he had thought the whole thing was crazy. He had feared it was wasting his child’s time when he could have been better occupied doing literacy and numeracy. Nevertheless, because the school staff was fully behind the project, he did not express his reservations publicly. On the final day as we returned from the public performances, he made a point of telling me this, apologising, thanking us, and saying that this experience would remain powerfully with him and his son for their whole lives.
For work to be ethical it cannot depend solely on our own judgment, although intuitive decision-making, knowing when to withdraw and when to intervene, are critical skills, honed through years of experience. We also need to take the time to build trust, to be present in the spaces where communities meet. We must work hand in hand with the matrons, prison warders, consultants and head teachers in the institutions hosting our presence. However deep our relationships, we are passing through, and it is they, not us, who will remain long after we have gone.
Together, in partnership with institutions, artists can be valuable catalysts, exploring real experience, daring sometimes to touch on difficult subjects; feelings which are hidden or ignored, and making profound and meaningful art which reveals their truths.
Published as a Comment in (2011) International Arts Manager News IAM 7 -23.