‘They thought art could change the world. Thousands joined in and things were never the same again.’ From this new publication about participatory arts fifty years ago reviewed here by Adrian Sinclair.

 

This was a time that had the smell of a rugged kind of freedom.

A jumbled, earthy, blown about time of learning and change,

a time of squats, disobedience and occupation,

a time when you could afford to wander, discover, get lost,

make mistakes unseen and learn from your indiscretions.

A time before everything was recorded in a virtual world, forever.

 

Bath Arts Workshop — once a ladies’ hairdressers —

A place where I learned the ropes of survival, made a lifelong treasured friend,

first heard the word proletariat and first began to understand

my context, my ambition, my commitment to the world.

 

p189 from the poem ‘A young woman’s walk in Walcot Street’ by Louise Osborn

 

I never knew Bath Arts Workshop in fact it only survived for 10 years back in the 70s and I first started working in the sector a decade later. But now I realise I knew people from Bath Arts Workshop, people that inspired me and helped me on my own journey to find my “commitment to the world”.

 

Legacy is one of the themes of this lovely book. BAW closed in 1981 but the projects it spawned lived on, some even to this day like the Natural Theatre Company. And the individuals involved took that spirit of possibility with them, creating and developing initiatives from campaigns to reuse reclaimed building materials to the London to Brighton Bike ride. All that in the 50 years since the Workshop first took over a ladies’ hairdressers.

 

As Louise Osborn says in her poem, this was before everything was recorded digitally and indeed the book came about from some of those BAW founders not wanting to let the place sink without trace. And in true participatory style the book is a communal effort from start to finish.

 

It’s a great story, written in an open, engaging manner from different points of view, and full of visuals; from festival photos to performance posters, town plans to postcards, even some timeless organisational artefacts:

 

September 12th 1972 B.A.W. Desk Diary.

  • Return lights from evening show.
  • Complete Gulbenkian application.
  • Write to Experimental Arts Panel.
  • Apply for music licence…

 

Timeless apart from the fact that back in 1972, rather than a to-do list on some digital platform, this one was typed out on a proper typewriter!

Anyone reading the book who is working in the sector today will find things that resonate with their own experiences. Apart from the daily to-do lists that might be the shared ambitions:

Breaking down barriers between work, play, social work, theatre, art, social occasions, etc…
We shared a vision of a world in which compassion and generosity came first, along with faith in human creative potential, concern and respect for the environment, and an underlying critique of the class-ridden, consumerist and militaristic culture that prevailed…

 

Or the feelings when things go really well:

Reality was suspended and we lived in a world that was carnivalesque and riotous in spirit…

 

Or some of the same old problems:

We lacked the resources and experience to fully engage people in those still early days, but the intention was there…

In May 1978, we had a cash flow crisis and the Arts Council suspended our grants until our accounts had been audited…

 

No doubt every generation will re-invent their own form of participatory arts and let’s celebrate that. But maybe we also need to take a moment to celebrate, learn, and be inspired by our own history. I haven’t had much chance yet to share this book with some of the early-career artists and activists I work with at UNION, but those that have seen it have been totally drawn in.

 

So well done to all those involved in stitching this book together. It’s published by Tangent Books so why not go retro and type a letter to them enclosing a postal order for £25…or, if you must, there is even a website: https://www.bathartsworkshop.org/

 

Adrian Sinclair
UNION: The Northern School for Creativity and Activism