Featured Artist: idle women

Deconstructions by Dina Roncevic, Fierce Festival 2014

Featured Artist: idle women
the idle women institute, St Helens

Heart of Glass, St Helens’ status quo busting culture commissioner, brings yet another year of perception shifting arts to the town in 2018. It’s idle women, though, who are behind some the year’s most exciting changes. Working under a Heart of Glass umbrella, and a great deal of their own steam, Cis O’Boyle and Rachel Anderson are pushing aside old hierarchies of arts production and setting out to find those who are usually held back.

Held back by fear, or by a community’s vision of itself, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the women they work with are truly worked with, not worked at.

Throughout 2017 their narrowboat women’s arts & resource centre has been touring Lancashire & West Yorkshire, designed by Humraaz womens refuge in Blackburn & used by many local women along the journey. The identity of the project they have built is shaped just as much by the women who have engaged as it has been by the artists, and it’s a sincere approach to helping that just so happens to use art.

The project is simple, it takes artists and communities and gets them to learn new things together. The Land Rover parked in their garage is proof of that, and the legacy will extend to a permanent institute for the women of St Helens, built by those who need it most.

I met with Cis and Rachel, the pair who set up idle women in 2015 and refer to themselves more as caretakers than leaders, to find out about their plans for 2018, and why such a critical part of their project was set here, in St Helens:

What led to you being here?

Cis: Patrick Fox, with Heart of Glass. That and the fact there’s a canal here, St Helens was initially our touring destination for our narrowboat project.

Rachel: We spoke to Patrick when Heart of Glass started. He asked us to talk to him about the fact St Helens is really well known for its men. There’s a lot of bravado; the identity is very male; the celebration of St Helens is very male. The women are incredibly important here but not celebrated or visible. So it was really about raising the voices of women in St Helens. When we were devising our tour, Heart of Glass partnered straight away and we’ve worked together for two years now.

What’s been the focus of your work in the town so far?

Cis: Setting up the idle women institute, and getting to know the women who probably wouldn’t even think of accessing a space like this. Outreach to those women for survival skills. There’s this whole thing since trump got in, all the rest of it, ‘oh dystopia is coming,’ and it’s such a privileged position to think like that. Dystopia’s here, it’s already been. It’s here now, it’s going to carry on, depending on where you sit in the structure. So the survival skills are about surviving the dystopia past, present and future. We’ve been learning skills every week to cope with being women in this dystopia.

Rachel: We also talk about not just surviving, but thriving. If the shit really hits the fan, who would you want to be around? Generally, the folks who have had the hardest lives. They’re going to be the most resourceful. You don’t want to be around David Cameron in a survival situation. So we’re learning from what’s already out there, what skills have women already got? Whether that’s bolt cutting, or lock picking to get out of a situation, or filling out your benefit forms – they’re all modern day survival skills.

Cis: And just the act of bringing women together is a survival skill. Look at witch hunts and history; the birth of capitalism; everything is structured to divide us and keep us at home in a domestic setting. Just the act of coming together is a survival skill.

Rachel: The word gossip means female friendship, and before the witch hunts, a gossip was a really firm affirmation of women being together, sharing together, raising kids together. But during the witch hunts, a woman was taken from the gossip, and she was tortured until she gave up her friends, and then they were all burned, killed. We’ve got Roby, in Knowsley, named after Isobel Roby, one of the witches killed in the Pendle witch hunts. She’s from St Helens, and in an acknowledgement of that, the structure put in place by the witch hunts is still there. Now we dismiss women who are having a conversation by saying, oh they’re just gossiping. We put down their exchange, and every time we do that we’re enforcing a violence that was set up in the 13th century. We really are interested to get to the roots of the problems we’re experiencing today. And a part of that is about naming those structures. So a gossip, a group of women coming together, is a very powerful act of defiance. And we’ll be forming some gossips next year.

Who are the women forming the project?

Rachel: We have some public invitations for any women to join, and we do outreach work too, where we’re particularly interested in women’s organisations, whether that’s a local refuge, that supports women in domestic violence, or a mental health group, or an asylum group. There’s a group called M-RANG that are Merseyside based, and women’s centres, and specialist groups and services. We’re really interested in existing structures for women, that we can help enhance. By working together we can help each other.

How important is access to you and to the women that come?

Cis: Well partly, some of the women that come, access problems are part of their norm. For example, we’ve been campaigning with Arriva bus, because they won’t let women on the bus with push chairs. There are black women in St Helens, and St Helens is famously white; like 98% white. Yet the other women coming with their push chairs can’t get on the bus. So that’s their norm, that’s their day-to-day. So there’s that practical access, and then there’s just having the confidence and the permission that they can walk through the door as well. Or knowing there’s somewhere they can come. We don’t run a crech, but if the women want to come and learn mechanics, then we’ll keep an eye on their kids while they’re busy with spanners.

Rachel: Or if a woman has no recourse to public funds, that means a lot, but it crucially means she doesn’t have her bus fare, we try to fit access around that. That might be organising taxis, or bus fares, but event taxis are complicated when you’re working with women who are at risk, where there’ve been occasions in the past where women have had secure locations disclosed by taxi drivers, to the men who are looking for them.

We always start our projects with the women that would find it hardest to come through the door, because that’s who should establish the space first. There is a certain freedom of movement that white middle class women have to go to any space and ‘belong’. But what is very important to us is that idle women is a place for all women and girls to belong. In order to create that belonging we have to start with the women who feel the least like they belong.

For example when we built the canal boat, we built it with South Asian women, so that way it’s a black women’s space first, and white women are welcome to come, but the belonging starts with the black women, and it’s the same here. The first women that have been in the space are black women, even though we’re told all the time that St Helens is 98% white, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t black women here. It’s very important that they start the building because they are the ones that face the most barriers in a space like this.

What’s the value of art in this environment?

Rachel: There is a certain permission of freedom of expression or exploration that an artist understands. And the understanding of the value of thinking, of discussion, of researching tangential lines, of going off in the complete other direction, of making mistakes, of gaining from those mistakes. There is a whole language of art process that is incredibly important to an artist and totally taken for granted. That’s why the creative sector is so important to our society.

These are very important life skills, and as artists we understand how transferable those skills are. Our understanding of failure is an essential part of our practice, but it maybe isn’t seen as a celebratory thing in most aspects of life. If you’re a gallerist or a collector, the value of art is a product, but that’s the least valuable thing to us because that’s where you discard it. You’re finished. It’s gone. Now what we have to do is work with women to find a shared value in that.

Cis: It’s about a shared process. This building’s an outcome, but it shared. It’s an outcome that the women of St Helens can come and use. It carries on. So as well as building it, the process is the women coming together as a community, working out how they’re going to use the space, how it will run, who will look after it. And that’s the value then, it’s not a gallery, this is the art work. It’s theirs.

Are more artists coming back to work further with you next year?

Rachel: Dina Rončević’s residency was this autumn, but this part of our residency is coming to an end, but we’re really hoping she’ll join us in spring but it’s not confirmed yet. We’re hoping she’ll join us for phase two of the project.

Cis: Our residency programme has finished now in terms of artists now until next year in terms of outreach and public engagement, but we did a big call out for plumbers, electricians, builders and carpenters, to get involved. We’ve had about 400 women apply, so they’ll be working as creatives with us

Rachel: And we’ll be working in parallel with ANU Productions, on a theatre piece later in the year, and hopefully we’re going to have some artistic outcomes, performances, images, in St Helens town centre, we might get some of the artists back that we’ve worked with, to come and work with us to create those.

How can other women get involved?

Rachel: In the next couple of weeks, we’re going to release a timetable, from February onwards. So hopefully there’ll be workshops people can come to, to find out a bit more, and then they can find weekly slots they can come and get involved with in spring. And of course, following us on Facebook, or signing up to our newsletter on the website. They just need to get themselves into our communication loop and then we can keep them posted.