“In your opinion, what is the ideal complexion for a cow?”

I attended the European Academy of Participation 8-day course in Amsterdam. It was a week of questions and there were many answers, but maybe I found the questions more interesting! I should explain the cow thing. I am currently re-reading a book by Padgett Powell ‘The Interrogative Mood’. It’s a work of genius although I am not sure I can explain why—every sentence in the book is a question…and that somewhat framed my week in the Netherlands.

It was the name the enticed me in—European Academy of Participation (EAP)—as we work towards setting up our own Academy: a sector-based coaching programme for emerging community artists and social activists across the north of England. Having spent a lot of time in recent months talking about the idea to organisations and individuals across the north of England, it felt a good idea to go and discuss with key people from other European organisations.

And don’t worry, I hadn’t heard about EAP either. It was just some post shared by another European project (TANDEM). But the name drew me in and before I knew it I was heading off to Amsterdam!

EAP (I found out) is an Erasmus-funded European project spanning academic and arts institutions from England, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, Romania and Spain. The lead organisation in the UK is Central St Martins and it is a closed group of organisations (don’t ask me how I got onto the course, particularly considering it was aimed at folks with at least a Masters level of education—I don’t have a degree of any kind!)

But hey, I do have a bit of experience and I have to say I was welcomed and encouraged and I hope I had something to contribute. The EAP is in its final year of existence so I was looking forward to coming in for the conclusions, but I am not sure I found many. But, as I said, sometimes questions are more interesting.

I keep going back to European work. I was even attending a TANDEM meeting in Brussels on the day of the Brexit referendum—think about having to explain that to your European colleagues the next morning! To be honest, my abiding thought about European projects is that, however long the project and the number of partners, as the work comes to an end the participants come to realise that they just don’t really understand what each other is talking about. Even these days when translators are no longer used and the ‘working’ language is English (or rather a kind of simplified Euro-English where I find myself constructing sentences differently because I know that it will be better understood), cultural and experiential differences mean that when people feel that they have a common understanding, sometimes they just don’t.

People keep asking me if I had a good time and I suppose I did, although at times I found the processes frustrating. And I worry that those courses (and this isn’t particularly a European thing) become quite inward-looking and it’s all about the group of people that are there and for me I’m not particularly interested in the bonding experience.

But I am interested in what I can take away with me, how it helps me to reflect on what I am doing in my own work. And so yes, spending some serious time talking around a bowl of sourdough that a colleague had brought from Ireland did inspire many thoughts and many questions. We talked of hosting and hospitality, of affinity and proximity, of being lazy and lying a little.

But maybe, inspired by Padgett Powell, I should say that I came away with a few of my own questions from the week (as well as finding out about a beautiful Dutch striped, or belted, cow called the Lakenvelder.)

Do you prefer to teach or to learn? Would you prefer to travel at the pace of a snail or would that seem to fast? Do you need to know the exact direction you are going before you begin? Can you let go? Is it more important to know what to do or how to do it? Is it more usual for you to comply or resist? Which space do you prefer to work in and who would you like to be there with you? (if anyone at all). Are structures needed?

Do you prefer to learn from people, from place, or from a book? Can you learn anything from someone who speaks to you in a language you don’t understand?

Do you see me as an art worker or an art wanker? Do you know exactly how much you own (and I really don’t mean the financial value) and do you think people who know you might agree with your answer? In your opinion, what is your ideal complexion for a cow? And what about a participatory arts project? Could you make bread from just flour and water? Would you want to?

Do you know what I don’t understand?

Can I be the perfect host if I have neither tea nor coffee? Can I participate without knowing that I am? Do your projects get better the further you are away from them, or simply more distant? Do you believe your own stories? Do you prefer being a hero, a villain, or some other character? Is good enough ever good enough? Are we just talking or do we have dialogue?

Do you know what to do next?


Adrian Sinclair
Chapel FM Centre Director for Heads Together Productions

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