NUI Maynooth – Representing Young People Conference

A presentation by Jonathan Myers During the 2nd Maynooth International Youth Studies Conference; ‘Representing Young People: Voice, Image, Practice, Power’

NUI Maynooth 29 June 2012

I got involved in art around 13 years ago through my relationship with Rialto Youth Project. I got involved because I wanted to do something at the age of 8 or 9. My first experience was being part of the mapping group in which I was a participant. ‘Mapping’ was a project which mapped the lives of young people in art. Through this group we had a link with the Irish Museum of Modern Art, with this link we made visits there regularly and also spent a lot of time in a studio space. I was part of mapping for 3 years. We done all sorts of art from 3D heads made from clay to painting and drawing. We as participants had little control from what I can remember. We would turn up to a session that had already been planned in advance as this would have been the method used when working with kids our age. Through this many relationships were formed, friends, supports and future relationships with institutions.

After mapping had ended I asked to join the Dolphin Art Group in which Fiona whelan was the artist. My role was still a participant but with more control on the direction in which the project went and how we got there. Within that group we had done and learned many things, from making a 3D model of our local area to doing a mural in dolphin and another mural in Philadelphia with the Philadelphia mural arts program. The 3D model was an exploration into the group’s feelings about where they lived, and then the mural was about dreams, ambitions in relation to where we lived. The Process we went through to deciding how the mural would look was difficult. We were asked ‘Can you be and do what you want in life being from Dolphin House’.Some people mentioned how they don’t put down Dolphin House as their address on facebook or bebo as they felt they are judged because of it. Some felt they didn’t have the same choices as other people who didn’t live in the flats. I didn’t think it mattered where you are from, you just got to work harder than others, show you are not one to be stereotyped. I said this with knowing of how influential your local area, people and its culture can be. I believe what had been seen in our area from unemployment, early school leaving and others issues, was a major factor in people saying no they couldn’t reach their dreams because where they were from dolphin house, but to be able to see past that and to look at what their own future could be was hard at times. You were in the present all the time. I had and continue to some extent to struggle with the notion that a certain home address can make or break your future – for example I went for a job interview in 2008 and during that interview the guy asked a question. Anyhow we got to the point where I said I grew up in Dolphin House and he was somewhat shocked. To him it was as if I had been to the depths of hell but fought my way out. This moment has stayed with me. It was both a positive and negative moment. The positive being I showed him that not every youth from a working class neighbourhood is the stereotypical media youth. The negative being it actually mattered to him where I was from.
So we finally got a design for the mural in dolphin. We never resolved the issue. We couldn’t agree but we agreed on an image that showed how we all felt, a young person trying to reach their dreams.

So the Dolphin Art Group was coming to an end and I received a letter in the door. The 3 main questions on the letter were:- are you interested in power?- are you interested in Art?- are you interested in telling your story? If you answered yes to these questions, then you are asked to attend a meeting for which I had. At this point I had trusting relationship with many staff at Rialto youth project. I had known Fiona for around 4 years and this all helped me in the decision to attend because I trust where they were going with this project.

This was different to every other art group I was involved in, this was a COLLECTIVE! So the workers and the artist were also interested in the same 3 things. It wasn’t just about what we were interested in as young people, and there was no one person that held the control, we were all equal and could bring our own ideas and even lead a session. After attending several months of discussion and debate if I remember right – quite a difficult process. The collective narrowed to a small group of 12 people. 1 artist, 2 youth workers and 9 young people.

Power was our theme. We got to a point through lots of debate and building trust where we would tell our stories and under the right conditions if people felt ok with that, their story would be shared within the collective but the story had to remain anonymous. The questions asked for you to tell a story were – Tell me a time you felt powerful? And Tell me a time you felt powerless?
This was not to ask for just negative or just positive stories we asked for both. Anonymity was the foundation of our project. If you knew who’s story was being read aloud you could not say anything. We decided the stories stay anonymous so that to protect the person who wrote it and those mentioned in the story. At the time I was an extremely private person and the idea of talking about something personal would be a change of immeasurable proportions. So as you’d guess I found it quite difficult and with hindsight I don’t think I went personal enough but for me to do what I did then was huge. I was making myself vulnerable by telling this story. When Fiona returned with the stories to the collective for them to be read aloud my heart was beating so fast. During the reading my story came up and I knew, some people knew it was me so at that point I was frustrated that I gave myself away but after the story was over no one took notice that it was mine and respected the anonymity. However, there were limits to it being anonymous, it made me feel that I didn’t own it fully because it was a story without a physical presence behind it. If I was to do it again I’d still remain anonymous but with the same regrets of the lack of ownership.

Having explored power, challenged power and come in direct contact with power, I thought the collective was a group of people who would change the world on a creative platform. Most of the younger people in the group had now got other priorities committing to college work, employment, travel and so on. I struggled to decide what to do because what I had done for the past 11 years was associated with art, expression and being part of a group meant there was someone else to point the way.

So in December of 2011 I applied to studio 468 with an idea of my own. Studio 468 is a local art studio for professional artists who want to work in community context. The idea was called ‘sticky labels’ and it was an exploration of names used to identify people and places. This idea came from my involvement in the ‘What’s the story? Collective’ where I was referred to as ‘young person’ or ‘youth’ rather than artist or youth worker which I felt had more status. It also seemed to diminish my ownership over the work, well that’s how I felt then.

It was the national media who categorised us. The art media pretty much ignored the exhibition. In the national media, journalists were looking for young people to talk about their experiences with police , power etc, while they turned to the artist or youth worker to talk about the overall ambition or direction of the work. This made me feel inadequate to the task. It made me ask myself many question: to name a few: was it my age? Occupation? Background? It’s this sort of assumptions made by myself influenced by others that lowers my confidence.

Also during WTS we explored patterns in our stories and how these related to class, for example the level of policing in our area and how that might be different in a more affluent area. We discussed what it meant to be ‘disadvantaged’ and I had explored what that label meant to me personally, how it made me feel . It wasn’t so much a feeling at the time but a question to what it actually meant to be disadvantaged. I may have lived in dolphin house but I knew some of the nicest people you’d ever meet. I have travelled to so many places and experienced so many cultures thanks to RYP. I value people more than i do money because a person may be labelled disadvantaged in economic therms but money does not make someone who they are, it’s the people they grew up around, their area, their family and their own values. With hindsight I now realise I was quite privileged in so many ways and I am grateful for that.

My studio 468 project was a 6 week piece of work with a 3 day exhibition at the end. I made a spider web like sculpture using material well known to working class people as it’s used as communal washing lines in flat complexes. This web was meant to reflect the tangle of oppression I exist in and those labels that reinforced that. At that point in the studio I realised I had spent 6 weeks doing something which I loved, which I had total control and power over. It was great. I was working solo, I was free to do anything. My journey now continues. I have applied for an art portfolio course which I hope will help me get into a degree course, when I am a mature student –which is 23. I had considered going straight to a degree course a few years ago through an access program but I have concerns around this as I dislike it because I feel these access programs would label me as disadvantaged. I do my best to avoid these sorts of situations and my doing so may have set me back in life.

I also still connect to the Rialto Youth Project. I am part of the management committee of the youth project. I also attend meeting to are of interest to me and I still have a relationship with Fiona. Although we are not working formally in the collective now, we talk regularly about art, social issues and ideas. The work the collective did produced new learning that is now part of the youth project. This method will continue to be used in Rialto in the work done there.
For me, my own journey continues exploring power, labels and oppression. Thank You vey much.

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