At 9am on Monday morning a fairly disparate group of people gathered for a meeting and training session for the Festival in a Box project. Alongside myself and other researchers, in attendance were one local Bloomsbury artist (last seen leading a walk at the Bloomsbury Festival), three poets, a ceramics artist, and an opera singer. Along with a representative from Age UK Camden, we were gathered to both learn about and debate the best ways of engaging people with dementia with artistic activity.
Thinking about the rather unusual mixture of people in this meeting, I was reminded of a phrase I have come across a lot recently in my research. The Department of Health’s first progress report on The Prime Minister’s Challenge on Dementia (published earlier this year) talks a lot about the need to create ‘Dementia Friendly Communities’ (DPH, 2013). This is an intriguing phrase, and one which has a relevance to what we are trying to achieve with our ‘Festival in a Box’.
Festivals tend to pride themselves on being ‘community’ events. That is to say they tend to be presented as both events for the community and also events that actually create community for the periods in which they run (and hopefully beyond).
As noted in my last post, our first ‘Festival in a Box’ experiment provided us with an intriguing narrative palimpsest of the ‘community’ gathered in Bloomsbury over the 19th-20th of October. Participants in our first outreach workshop (a random cross-section of festival attendees) gave us a box full of impressions, creative written and visual responses to Bloomsbury over these two exceptional days. Our first Bloomsbury ‘Festival in a Box’ archive was created—and it is full of the most fascinating fragments of what a festival ‘community’ might look like:
But of course we need to question exactly which ‘community’, or ‘communities’ a festival is engaging with, responding to, or creating – and to test the limits of this. Creating a ‘dementia friendly community’, in this instance, should perhaps be about creating a ‘space’ of community in which people with dementia can be acknowledged and their voices heard. It should be about finding ways in which the voices of those living with dementia can be re-integrated into narratives of community and of place.
In our own small way, this is what we are trying to achieve with the Festival in a Box Project: to re-integrate the voices of those living with dementia into the broader ‘narrative’ of the Bloomsbury Festival, of Bloomsbury, and of London itself.
The contents of our first box have been used as prompts for our artistic outreach visits. Artists have responded to the archive contained in our first box to find inspiration for their workshop activities over coming weeks. In this way the transitory ‘community’ of visitors to the Bloomsbury Festival (and their thoughts and memories), will be brought into connection with long-term residents in the area living with dementia. This is intended as both a symbolic and as an actively sociable intervention.
But of course another sociable aspect of what we are doing, as we build our network of collaborators and stakeholders in this project (researchers, artists, designers, poets, singers) is to create our own, small scale ‘dementia friendly community’. This community is growing over the development of the project—and over the course of the meetings that take place within it, the correspondence passing back and forth between its members.
This might take us back to that meeting on Monday, and to the conversations taking place between artists, designers, researchers, and those working with people with dementia on a day-to-day basis. Whilst not generating ‘community’ in a traditional sense, meetings such as this might be examples of spaces of possibility opening up, through which the idea of a ‘dementia friendly community’ might begin to look less like a piece of rhetoric and more like a reality.