Together Apart – Ingestre Arts Centre and the European Dimension
Posted on 17th April 2019 at 12:24
Our UK relationship with Continental Europe is under pressure and the drop in the number of foreign visits to Ingestre Hall suggests we have a relationship problem. In 2016 Ingestre hosted several residentials for schools from Spain, Belgium and Denmark. Some of these were shared with local schools to enhance the residential experience. Visits involving other countries provide affirmation and hope for our service, they are a testament to the idea that the arts are trans-national, that the arts can enable new and positive relationships to be forged and that working with creativity and skilled artists enables a fresh and dynamic appreciation of identity and belonging to emerge. Our European visitors cherished this and looked forward to their repeat bookings, confident that we were creating an experience and opportunity that could bring about personal transformation with wider learning outcomes for schools and their communities. They recognised that Ingestre residentials provide visiting artists and participants the collective opportunity to become aware and appreciative of the importance and value of art as a powerful vehicle for intercultural understanding and expression.
Edgar Degas tells us “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” We can thus appreciate that art must be meaningful when there is an interaction between the creator and an audience. The necessity for a ‘relationship’ within this exchange is well understood at Ingestre and the artists carefully facilitate a collaborative approach to creative design and presentation that affords, recognises and celebrates the input of each participant. The result, typical of an Ingestre residential, sees the emergence of a community of artists with artistic endeavour and with an appreciative audience. The relationships that are established during the residentials through this process are strong and supportive and the environment, which is created, is one where creative failures and risk are regarded as essential tools for learning.
In 2019 we received no bookings from Continental Europe. In light of the 2016 referendum result and the on going debate, it must seem to our neighbours that we wish to distance ourselves. The prevailing argument to ‘take back control’ and ‘manage our own political and economic affairs’ must surely re-enforce the idea, among our European neighbours, that Britain sees itself as an ‘Island Fortress Nation’. The result of the referendum, often regarded as protest against enforced bureaucracy and control from Europe (although alternatively perhaps to be regarded as protest against forced control and bureaucracy from London and Westminster), has affected all of us who value and aim to develop positive working relationships with others. It all goes to suggest that in Britain, we take a different view or a contrasting position and by inference find it difficult to show our emotions and to secure and offer empathy.
On a personal level, I became acutely aware of this as an 11year old boy attending school in France. For six weeks, having been packed off to my cousins while my parents took a tour circumnavigating the globe (a perc of my father’s job as a merchant sailor), I was a foreigner in another country. My French was basic at best and so my first day at school was an anxious affair, I was nervous, shy and confused and playtime that day was particularly difficult. I mostly sat on my own too afraid to join in the other children’s games. The second day was met with equal trepidation and for the first lesson that day I sat at the back of the class worrying about the playtime ahead. The bell rang and soon we were outside. Within a few moments I felt someone’s hand, a boy’s hand, clasped onto mine. I was shocked - at home, a boy holding hands with another boy was regarded as a physical manifestation of courtship. So, with an apparent invitation to become someone’s boyfriend, I pulled away, embarrassed and forced to examine the signal of intent and my own reaction to it. However, Christophe, whose name I soon learned, was patient and kind and continued to enact what I subsequently realised was a rite of ritual and of cultural acceptance – signalling his desire for friendship and probably recognising my evident sense of alienation from the playground community. From that moment on I recognised my own immaturity and ignorance, that it is routine and expected for boys to hold hands and not the signal of intention for a relationship. I felt emboldened to maintain my friendship with Christophe, and others with whom I held hands, ultimately enjoying the whole experience of being a pupil in a foreign, and friendly school. When I returned home I experimented with this cultural tradition, I tried holding hands with my boy friends at school. Predictably, I was quickly labelled and taunted with the usual homophobic slurs that continue to all-pervasively blight so many of our British playgrounds today.
It is this British inability to recognise our commonality as human beings that the arts can so effectively challenge and transform. Within a residential context, the practice and presentation of art is also uniquely, a community experience, with the learning and impact of flowing from the activity itself and from being an audience member, to a social dimension where reflection, dialogue and inspiration is evident during evenings and at play times. At Ingestre we understand the potential for arts residentials to challenge and celebrate the differences and commonalities that can bring us together and as support us as individuals apart. We are thus now committed to re-doubling our efforts to connect to our fellow Europeans in a spirit of intercultural dialogue and understanding. We recognise the need to find new ways to communicate a shared belief in friendship and to apologise for our historic imperialist inability to empathise. Perhaps Ingestre, even if just in a small way, can help to heal the divisive wounds inflicted through the recent European turbulence and, in a bid to promote understanding and tolerance, offer its hand of friendship to any country who chooses to visit.
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