The following is the November blog post by John Howard Artist in Residence Johnny Trinh. To read more on Johnny’s Residency, click here.
Quick Recap. Last time on the AIR BLOG I talked about the thanksgiving feast. At the feast we gained two new practicum students, who were thrown into the deep end of what the CSO is like when it’s full and bustling. It’s been quiet at the Community Service Office ever since. The week after Thanksgiving, the CSO had a field trip to the pumpkin patch. With many thanksgiving festivities and Halloween events, there’s a natural ebb to attendance. We only have so many spoons after all. With the practicum students, I shared with them the many successes of the program, more than anything I tried to communicate that sometimes the best thing we can do in the space was simply engage in the activities.
As trust with the participants grow, and relationships strengthen, service users are more likely to mirror our behaviour. I know that often trying new activities is met with some resistance. Mostly, people are nervous of failure, or concerned that activities aren’t accomplishable because of some limitation or barrier. Patrick was very conscious of his injured shoulder, and lack of dexterity in one of his hands. Carlo didn’t think he could draw. A few others simply didn’t know what to do with yarn. Last week, we had Charlize, one of our outreach workers come in to teach us how to crochet. The majority of the participants were staff of the centre, but we ended up having a few service users are participants as well.
This in itself was a solid win. The workshops are meant for anyone and everyone, and sometimes there’s a misconception or assumption that it’s only for service users. It was great for service users, and staff alike to see each other enjoying an activity, and sharing space. Sometimes I felt a bit of anxiousness, I admit I was swept up in the upswing of participants, and a few solid weeks of continual growth in numbers and quality of engagement. It’s a busy time of year, as mentioned with lots of activities, and holidays, this time of year lends itself to lower participants.
This is not to say that there haven’t been any folks at the centre. We are still consistently double in numbers where we were last year at this time, but the energy is low, folks tend to want to sit and chat more than they want to do any particular art practice. The textile and yarn work hasn’t resonated as I had hoped. I think that I’ve learned that with all of our other activities, they required less dexterity, more convincing, and shorter duration. Knitting, crochet, any kind of art practice that requires more than a session to finish tends to yield lower enthusiasm.
That is not the only reason for the quiet. I found out a few of our members have hit some rough patches. This is cyclical. Relapse, hospitalization, the struggles are ever present, and I’ve been finding it hard to negotiate where my experience gets to reside.
I recently attended a queer artist support networking event. The gathering was a drop in session meant to provide opportunities for Indigo-queer, and BIPOC Queer artists to have dialogue around our work. One of the facilitators worked with Indigenous sex workers in the Downtown Eastside. I would avoid using the word commiserate… and bonding wouldn’t be right either… I’d say that we connected on a deeper level talking about some of the challenges in our roles. They were upfront with recognizing the risk of what we do, and their coping strategies when things go wrong. They said that often they need to have several back up plans for their workshops. They never know what attendance will be like, or the state of participants when they do arrive. They are ever-ready with sage and tobacco to hold ceremony and ritual, or simply hold space. They shared the weight and reality that if a participant is triggered, more specifically, if the participant leaves triggered- they’re at greater risk of engaging in dangerous behaviours. Sometimes they pass away and we don’t find out until much later.
I remember my first days at John Howard, I talked about one participant, whose first words to me were “I’ve been off heroin for 10 days.” This was the beginning of several weeks of great engagement… and then nothing. They relapsed. I remember reminding myself that this was the reality of where I was. It wasn’t about me. It was my job to be there when they came back (and they eventually did). There wasn’t ever any judgement, or pity. From me, there was simply a sadness in the unknown.
I remember Lindsay Wong, my predecessor, often talking about participants forming attachments with her. In conversations we both talked about our own attachments to the participants. It’s one of the reasons I felt strongly that this residency should not be a permanent one. I am an artist in residence, I try to encourage positive relationships, engage people through art, and facilitate platforms for people to dialogue. I’m not an outreach worker, I’m not a therapist, there are so many things I don’t get to know.
It’s not my intention to whine or claim that I should get to know. One of the first things we’re taught in grad school was that as community-engaged artists, we needed to know our scope, practice within it. We needed to truly understand the implications of our presence… and eventual departure.
I’m not a better artist in competition with other artists. But I will say I’ve had some of the best mentors in the field who instilled an ability to see a bigger picture. We are not saviours. We are not the first. We are not the last. I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of lectures and consulting with upcoming community-artists. Too often I hear the usual trope of wanting to go support some marginalized community because “they are invisible.” I challenge them to consider all the projects they’ve researched and realize that just because someone is marginalized doesn’t make them invisible. I challenge them to question who are the potential participants invisible to? I then challenge them to consider their own blindness to the realities in which they want to engage.
By no means am I saying that people shouldn’t help others, or that marginalized folks don’t need support. But I would say that within some communities, they’re inundated with opportunities to participate in one program or another. Participant fatigue is very real. It’s one of the reasons that many organizations are looking at inter-organizational collaboration and service provisions. They’re trying to find a way to reduce barriers and streamline support.
During my MFA, we spent many weeks talking about best practices in connecting with communities, and how to develop programs in diverse places. We spent many months discussing what it means when the “work” is complete. For the John Howard Society, though I’m not rushing to go anywhere, I’m definitely thinking heavily of what happens when I leave. We’ve formed deep friendships, positive relationships. I hope to be a part of the community for the rest of my life. I also know that my role will change.
I’m not someone who necessarily believes in destiny. I do believe that we as humans have things to teach each other. I believe that for every relationship, there is a potential… almost an inevitability for a transformative interaction. I was in deep discussion with one of the outreach workers, Yuri, who was talking about their own ethical negotiations as an outreach worker. They said early in their career, they struggled with the reality that they were being paid to provide support, but as time went on, and relationships deepened, this became more of a struggle. Primarily, they only had so many hours to service a client. And early in their career, when they were in training, they’d often be moved around between practicums or internships or coops. It meant that they would form relationships, and then be reassigned somewhere else, or their contracts were much shorter. They struggled with the impact it had on building trust with clients, more accurately, their clients ability to develop trust with such a rotating cycle of support people. Once they moved beyond their training, they definitely were able to have longer term clients, but the questions still linger in the air.
In my practice, some of my strategies to address these questions:
- Honour the trust and relationships that are formed. I absolutely value and see participants as peers, friends, and that these relationships are reciprocal and not unidirectional
- Make an effort to approach the work as a team, leaning on, including, collaborating with staff so there is always more than one person in the room
- Have many guests artists come, and invite friends as well to attend, so there is a mindful replenishment of fresh energy
- Keep the activities active
- Leave support systems, methods of contact, and materials/supplies/tools that participants can use and continue to use after my tenure (this could be the art supplies, technology, instruments, etc.)
- Follow up and be available for follow up over time. Maintaining relationships, remembering milestones and important dates
- Provide opportunities for participants in future if applicable
- Be transparent and accountable to everyone participating in the residency
Now some of these strategies are absolutely an affordance of an artist-in-residence. It is some of what balances out the roles/differentiates the roles between artist-in-residence, outreach worker, and service user. I get to set my boundaries differently. These boundaries, however, are not only there to protect everyone involved in the projects, they are also confines that I live within.
I recently got married. One of my mentors flew across provinces to officiate our wedding. Because she was from another province, she wouldn’t legally be able to recognize us on the paperwork, so one of her colleagues had to do it. When I picked her up from the airport we wept. When we were with her colleague, during the legal ceremony, we wept. When it was time for the formal wedding- she refused to weep. I said it was fine if she did, and she said, “No. I’ve been doing this a long time. It is my job to hold the space for you. It is not a space for my feelings, because it is your time to truly, deeply, eternally experience this incredible transformative moment.” I said, “OK, you don’t get to cry.” as the reality of life-committing partnership landed in full force.
Community-engaged art and this artist-in-residency is kind of like that. It’s a life-commitment, it’s a partnership, it’s a practice unto itself. And within the understanding of these boundaries, these agreements that are made, as much as I am a guest on these unceded lands, I am a visitor in the CSO that has been welcome by an incredibly rich and vibrant community. I am there to hold space, it is not for me to weep or pry or take up space/energy while the amazing staff are trying to help their service users. It is not for me to invade or disrupt the healing process of the participants whoever they are. So my grief, my sadness when bad news comes is dealt with elsewhere. I get to go home, write, cook, be with my family. If there is sorrow, I get to hold it somewhere else. Because in the space, even on the quiet days, we are there to meet, and connect, and hopefully share in endless transformative moments that eventually change the system and change the world.