Over the years we returned to a simple exercise that we used many times in the process of developing work and have delivered as the centre of workshops at our summer school at Manchester’s greenroom in 2008, at the Centre for Performance Research in Aberystwyth, at the Lyric Hammersmith in London, at Project Arts Centre in Dublin, at University College Falmouth and Festival a/d Werf in Utrecht in 2012.
This is the task. Some people go out into the world. They go somewhere that they have never been, meet someone who they don’t yet know and invite them back to an event that has been constructed in their absence…
In 2010, we were invited by Fierce Festival to develop a project with them in the West Midlands. Seventeen people – some artists, some not – from local, national and international locations gathered for one week in Wednesbury, a small post-industrial town in the Black Country, close to Birmingham in England’s West Midlands.
The slightest movement was intended as a week-long version of that simple yet challenging exercise – a process-based project to create a temporary community of strangers (including 13 core participants) who debated questions around tolerance and ‘otherness’.
The idea for Wednesbury was that task would repeated every day for a week. Each day the event could be re-invented according to what happened the day before. The hope was that a small group might grow into a large one, gathering more and more strangers into a temporary – perhaps uneasy – community.
It failed. In spectacular fashion. Despite trying various strategies – including de-camping the workshop itself to the main shopping street in the town – the group were unable to persuade any but a handful of Wednesbury residents to join them…
…until, at the end of the week, we took the decision to use our small marketing budget to pay people to attend. Everybody who came along received £5 for just under an hour of their time (at that moment in time, this was just below the National Minimum Wage of £5.93). The room was full.
The slightest movement raised difficult and fascinating questions – about art and its relation to place; about artists and their relation to people who aren’t artists; about who gets paid for ‘participating’; about the problems with parachuting in somewhere where you have no existing relationships; about the ephemeral nature of many participatory art projects. The process confronted head-on the problems of working like this in a location like Wednesbury, which is economically deprived and has limited cultural provision. It was described by a participant as “one of the most thought-provoking, poetic and intimate events that will shake our rooted moral certainties”.
We continue to explore the possibilities and questions raised by this exercise.