Witnessing human compassion, connection and resilience, fostered in a harsh landscape of brutal inequality, and noting the contribution and impact of research.
Mexico City is a world of parallel realities – perceived in the extreme by travelling on one of the main autopistas from grand, tree-lined avenues in the cultural centre, out to the fringes on the East, where marginal scavenger communities construct themselves – whole families living literally inside and underneath the city’s rubbish mountains. Or, from convivial cafes and cosy residential courtyards, concealing their palms and passionate bougainvillea behind high street-front doors, taking a short few strides to the brutal night world of the soliciting strip at Nuevo Leon corner, where pin-thin transvestite prostitutes manage impossible heels, bearing the winter chill almost naked to earn pennies inside the black saloons that crawl past. The contrasts in parallel life experiences here are stomach churning.
Within this place are many self-organised groups, passionately keen to touch and highlight the ever-present social injustices. Some use ingenuity and creative skills to make contact with people living beyond the visible city life, as discussed in a previous blog entry – In and Out of Focus, in which inmates in a youth prison here in Mexico City were encouraged to make a film of their incarcerated everyday lives. On this trip I have been in close contact with an organisation of artists – ‘Paisaje Social’, roughly social landscape in English – who are beginning to develop sustained partnerships with State-run social institutions such as networks of children’s homes and care homes for the elderly. Working so far without payment but using huge creativity and ingenuity with minimal resources, they run workshops in teams, to create simple new experiences with people, and transform atmospheres and spaces.
My experience attending two workshops, one in a children’s home and one in an elderly care home found artists bringing playful and open-hearted humanity into bleak, dark corners: making small art works, together with groups of up to 20 participants, that reflect back the imagination and creativity people in these institutions rarely have the chance to explore or express. I was intrigued to see such open and uninhibited, tender relationships blossoming, touch and eye contact, laughter and teasing characterising interactions between everybody in the workshops. It’s particularly fascinating to see the cross-cultural interactions at work here: the teams include artists from Japan as well as Mexico, and language functions on many non-verbal and paralinguistic levels, in order to work around missing words or difficult accents, especially important in connections with the older people with dementia. Even my own presence bringing an English accent and another different cultural perspective seemed to enrich rather than disrupt the workshops: curiosity and good will were strong enough to straddle the language confusions. Although the participants themselves, and their works which adorn the shared living areas of the institutions, remain behind the locked doors, Paisaje Social uses a sophisticated website and social media strategy via Facebook and twitter to enable what goes on in these workshops, as well as the participants and their achievements, to be visible and celebrated in the world beyond.
My connection with Paisaje Social began on my last visit here 6 months ago, when one of the three co-founders of the organisation, Miho Hagino, attended a seminar I ran here in Mexico City, to disseminate the findings from my doctoral research for a practitioner audience. Miho saw the seminar advertised by chance, and attended hoping to find useful perspectives on the practice of the Paisaje Social associate artists. She was very inspired by the resonances she felt with the messages from my research, and since then we have been in touch by email. The ensuing relationship is inspirational for both parties: Paisaje Social has taken on with huge enthusiasm my model for how socially engaged arts and arts/health practice can be articulated and theorised, disseminating the ideas, debating their own approaches, and even engaging in dialogues with me about evaluation strategies, and professional development based on my work. For me, to be in touch with an organisation so serious about reflective practice, and finding such useful application for my research is an inspiration and a privilege. It is exactly what any researcher can hope for – that what we commit our focus and efforts to with such intensity can then find a useful application in the real world of practice.
Paisaje Social is an organisation on the march, accumulating knowledge, experience and ambition in how to create new openings for good practice in community-based participatory arts initiatives – I will be in close contact with them, and hope they will become a Mexican outpost in our CMH arts and health network of colleagues and compañeros.