Council of Community Conveyors is a difficult project in its simplicity: provide the service of passing a message from one neighbour to the next in a community. Sharon, Mia and I have all created works in the past that encourage participation, but never have we asked so much of people. And this is a good thing! Having now presented the work in Calgary, Toronto, London, and Birmingham, we have learned a lot about the trepidation and transformation folks have when participating in the project--moving from scepticism, to fear, and finally to exhilaration, for instance. We have seen participants critically engage with their own identities on door steps and between houses, discover the limits and possibilities of community, and form quick relationships between the Conveyors themselves.
We really appreciate the writing that the three below have done about the project and are happy to share parts of them here with you.
from Things Bodies Can Do, Exeunt Magazine
October 16, 2014
It is about half past eleven on a Saturday morning and I’m knocking on a complete stranger’s door on an otherwise empty street in a suburb of Birmingham. Grey and white terraced houses and front yards of dirt or dirty grass or neat interlocking red bricks. I am wearing a yellow sash and holding a clipboard. I have been told to wait for twenty seconds after knocking because people in Birmingham seem to take quite a long time to get to the door. I’m waiting. In a quiet, understated way befitting of this quiet, understated street this is possibly the most frightening thing I’ve ever been asked to do in a performance. I was once chased by a masked man with a chainsaw through an abandoned office block in Manchester yet somehow in this particular moment the thought of an uninvited confrontation with an unknown and unknowing member of the public on their own doorstep feels to me much harder. I am almost amazed by the effort it has required for me to choose to try meet this person here, whoever they might end up being. My yellow sash is not entirely straight.
The project is called the Council Community of Conveyors and it was initiated by two artists from Calgary as a way of engaging with and perhaps interrogating the idea of neighbourhoods and neighbourliness in a modern city. The artists recruit individuals in each place they visit to join them as part of the council, and together they head out into the streets of a particular pre-selected area tasked with passing messages from one neighbour to the next. The council employs the unmistakable, unremarkable language of local community volunteers as a kind of camouflage. We are concealed in sashes and clipboards, our words costumed in the polite folksiness of a census taker or someone collecting for a bring-and-buy sale. And from the outside at least this perhaps disguises the project’s sharpness of purpose; it’s clear, unsentimental urgency. When you’re here, however, on the doorstep clipboard in hand, it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like you are throwing your body at the gaps between houses, at the estrangement between neighbours. It feels like an attempt at bridging unbridgeable distance in a society having its fractures rebroken by fear and austerity and the misuse of power as a tool for cynical self-interest. Elsewhere in the city people are gathering for an EDL march, whilst others gather for a UAF march. There are more police than either group and people move between flocks of high-visibility coats with morbid curiosity and unsettled discomfort. On this doorstep I am considering the importance of sometimes simply placing your body in the path of things, and that doing so does not always need to involve the violence you imagine it should. And then there is the muffled sound of footsteps and someone inside walking towards the door.
October 26, 2014
[...] Front doors are opened to reveal a family hurriedly getting ready for an Indian wedding, a son who freely admits to us that he treats his parents’ house like a hotel, a group of young men dressed only in boxer shorts or towels, a woman who told us she has learning difficulties. Such encounters are unexpected, perhaps humorous or touching, but at times our presence on the doorstep feels intrusive and we leave quickly. Some people struggle to comprehend what we are doing and why. Others are pleased to tell us about the neighbourhood and ask us to let their neighbours know how much they have appreciated their help or ask us to welcome new residents to the road on their behalf. We learn that, in this street, some landlords live next to their tenants, family members live next door to one another but have no messages to pass on and that some residents are lonely. A lady originally from Barbados asked us to let her neighbour know that hearing her children playing in the garden next door over the years has made her feel less alone and part of a family of sorts.
This research is conducted modestly. Its impact is impossible to measure. Yet its value is enormous. The artists are warm and generous people who wish to begin what are an important series of dialogues between ordinary people. It is hoped that these conversations will continue after Rushton and Moschopedis have left Birmingham, and the project has been realised in several other locations. Each time the Council of Community Conveyors form microcosmic, complex snapshots of communities: their cultural and social structures, the ways that class and religion shape a home, the strength of or lack of community spirit and neighbourliness. Most significantly the project builds a collection of individual stories, albeit fragmented and partial, but true and honest and vital. And these stories are experienced by participants, both those aware that this is an art event and by each person that opens the door to us.
October 5, 2014
“Hello. My name’s Matt and we’re from the Council of Community Conveyors.”
We’ve just been talking to Mohammed next door, who wants to apologise for the number of times his shuttlecock has flown over your fence this summer.
That’s when she – Hilary – cracks into an enormous hoot of laughter. All her suspicion and guardedness gives way in an instant. The personal mixes with the absurdity to banish all thoughts of the salespeople, pollsters and Jehovah’s Witnesses that have come before us. It’s stupid. It’s rather sweet. She wants her next-door neighbours to know that she hope’s they have a really good weekend.
Of course, all this comes with the whiff of happy-clappy hipsterism, that peacenik smile of good will to all, that makes us sceptical Brits balk in unison. And of course, the thought of going door-to-door, dressed as dickheads, doing little twee good deeds and – ugh – actually talking to ordinary people on their own doorstep induces a pandemic of eye-rolling. I mean, the very idea that a single message passed from one neighbour to the next can kickstart a new era of community, one street at a time? PUH-LEASE.
And yet, it only takes a couple of houses, one or two responses like Hilary’s, to get into the swing of things and start taking it seriously, to start trying, to start investing in the task and, even, in the neighbourhood you’ve been parachuted into. At one level, council membership disarms your cynicism.