The following is a presentation given in response to an essay/talk by Jessica Gogan, artist & curator living in Rio.   Gogans’ essay is about a medicinal plant project which took place in Brazil. At first glance it has nothing to do with people with learning disabilities but don’t let that confuse you.  Her descriptions of the issues which surround collaboration with  people from diverse background, the long term implications of working within these communities and ways in which those involved can begin to make change on their terms – all have resonance within The Ideas Team.


What is the generative power of art in the so called real world? 

In Rio I’m in an outdoor cafe area in a large, almost derelict psychiatric hospital. . A working hospital. It’s a strange place where people sit, leaning against the wall. Rocking. Lost in the comfort of their action. A man, skinny, slightly bedraggled, lurches towards me. Arms outstretched. In one hand he holds a childs doll the doll is even dirtier than the man. Behind him an older woman. His mother. Smiling. He comes in for a cuddle from me. The woman smiles. He hands me his doll.

The woman and her son are a universal symbol of care, caring and vulnerability. You will see this symbol all over the world. If you could time travel you could go back or forward in time and that image, that pairing will always be there. A constant.

The value placed on ensuring the wellbeing of the mother and son, is an excellent Barometer of the health of a community.

I look at the woman and her son and I worry that I’m looking at our future. At a time when we have a huge sub class deemed worthless because they can’t contribute. Where the care that is offered is at its most basic.

At the moment we are seeing the destruction of the welfare state and the victimisation of the most vulnerable people. This isn’t just about money. It’s about how much we care and How much we are willing to see what is actually happening.. How much we will let it happen. And what that means to us and our future

I cannot emphasise enough – care is not something that happens to someone else.

Care in the form I talk about is something that will come to us all. One way or another. And if we choose not to do something about it, when we actually need it, it will be in a form and at a cost that is out of the majorities reach. The care we will be able to receive will be at a very basic level or through our families. Just like the mother and son in Rio.

So where on earth is art in this? Can art do anything within this real world?

I want to explore The Third Space as referenced within Jessica Gogans essay. And i quote ….. ‘where different knowledge bases and autonomies are being played out and considered within the same network of questions and strategies. Striving to connect worlds where also the artist no longer has the big picture. Indeed no one does’

I’m a firm believer in equality within our work. I prefer to work within areas where everyone can contribute on their own terms. Each contribution having equal value. Where no one holds all the answers. Where talking, sharing and learning may provide a response to a particular problem. I will give an example. Many parents of people with disabilities are presented with negatives about their son or daughter when they go to meetings about their care. They are told that Joe keeps biting, or Sarah won’t stay in a room, or Agnes screams all the time. It’s not like they don’t know that already. So we create meetings where Joe or Sarah or agnes’ main carers are presented with a creative problem to solve, and a team of people from disparate backgrounds to help them do it. The creative problem and it’s solution can be simple or complex. It can be achieved in a week or in ten years or perhaps never. It’s the process that matters.

The creative process informs the art work……the making of the artwork is a means to an end. It’s a tool which enables all involved to talk (and I use this term loosely. By this I mean communicate in whatever form it takes) , sharing ways of working and ultimately thinking differently. And thinking differently opens new doors to a space in which an idea or creative response can make a number of different things possible.

I would think of this as the third space..where everyone involved gets from the process what they need, the care worker gets confidence and skills, the family get a new more positive perspective on their son or daughter, the artist is inspired to make an artwork.

The artist is inspired. It’s a difficult process for the artist. It challenges their work. They have to think about their practice, what it means. But they rise to it. They make it something which works.

In this third space it’s the unknown that fuels the work.

The artists amaze me, they are not put off by what at times can be intransigent problems. The people around whom the projects are built astound me as they begin to show their true selves as a result of intensive involvement. Care staff and management are living proof that it is possible to change lumpen care structures. It’s about teams of people working together. Sharing. Learning


Sometimes it doesn’t work. Surprisingly it’s only happened a couple of times. I think the problem was that the artists were blinded by the persons disability and circumstances. Disabled by their own predjudice about difference

Within this process there is much confusion, we are thrown by real life circumstances…….indifference, poor care, overworked staff, the ridiculousness of medical and social work support, the desperateness of parents. It’s part of the process, it can confuse ways of working, make us unclear as to what what will happen next, where the work will go. Ultimately It doesn’t stop us doing what we do. We learn from it. It adds to what we do.

As a result, we often shift emphasis.

sometimes concentrating on the work of the artists, sometimes on building the skills and understanding of care staff, at points looking at more creative management and back again to the individual. It’s constantly learning, encouraging others to take on different perspectives, forming another way of thinking about and working with vulnerable people.

I suppose what I’m describing is a more open understanding of the role of the artist within this process. Where the creative process emerging as a result of the meeting of minds and experiences is the catalyst for change. Where the artist is part of that process but not at the centre of it.

In the third space time slows down, as ideas form and reform and relationships grow

Amongst many other things We run weird training classes for staff. Anything from a clown workshop to classes in creative writing. We do this because we have ulterior motives. Because we want to encourage care staff to think differently We want them to feel valued but mostly we want them to understand that if we can all think creatively, interesting things will and do happen, for them and for the people they care for. This work happens around the artist, it’s often a byproduct of their practice.

Working in this way changes systems. From the bottom up.

It infiltrates care systems made ineffective or rotten as a result of years of cost cutting and clumsy management bureaucracies.

In our third space people have dignity, a voice and through encouraging more positive perspectives we can value people for who they are, ………this includes care staff, and social workers. All the people at the bottom of the pile, who can actually make things happen.

No matter how small, this work makes a difference.

In Brazil things are different. In Scotland things are different …… but in both countries it’s all changing. I don’t want to compare what we have with what they dont. What we are losing against what they have never had and vice versa. I want to see what we have in common. Understand how they work within specific circumstances, share our experiences, swap ways of working, learn from each other.

As I said at the beginning the old lady and her son are a barometer

We cannot afford to think in terms of them and us.

Artist and non artist

Disabled and non disabled.

We need to be able to see each other – understand

To be brutally honest They are us.

We are living in radical times. Times where we are regularly made aware of difference

Being warned of the hidden enemy, the people defrauding our benefits systems, the refugees who threaten our national security

In these times we need to rethink what value and quality means within an arts context we need to rethink how we work together, who we work with and what we would want to achieve from it

I’m totally heartened when I hear artlink artists talk about a collective in which some of the people have learning disabilities. Even although it presents many ethical and logistical problems. The idea that you would look for this equality is an incredibly interesting one, bringing people around the table. In a practical sense

For me the art is the means to an end. It brings people from different backgrounds, with different experiences together.

It doesn’t need to be Activist with a large A

Art shouldn’t always jump in there point out the issue and leave. What it should do is bring people together. Around a table.

It needs to get people talking.




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