Artist webbing town's cultural threads
Two children - one who has crossed the sea in escape of his torn homeland - sat making origami butterflies and exchanging Farsi and English words.
It was a scene driven by a Philippine artist creating a piece of work webbing together the different cultural threads of Burnley.
And it says a lot about art: its power for connection; for understanding; for empathy; but it also illustrates the role of art as a sanctuary, one that isn’t limited by the concept of borders.
Alwin Reamillo’s immersive artwork reflects the town and its communities. It's a floating sculpture taking the form of a barge to mark the 200th anniversary of the Leeds and Liverpool canal.
But it’s also a dialogue themed on “movement”, more specifically “change”, in light of our diversifying communities and modernising society: leaving the EU; a new refugee demographic; technological advancements etc.
Change is a topic we humans have always feared. Instinct ushers us towards the familiar, for the unknown may bring new sets of problems. But all too often it is actually our fear that holds us back. And so the artwork illuminates the possibility for growth and healing that change can offer.
When a homeowner in the Philippines wishes to move, members of the community help to carry their house to the new setting. Pines used in Alwin's sculpture nod towards this.
It's a stunning image: the whole town coming together to carry this idea of change, of sharing the load to help another better their lives.
It's something that mirrors the work of residents in Burnley who have opened their hearts and homes to refugees who have uprooted in search of a safer location.
A symbol of this community - represented by New Neighbours, a refugee group working with Alwin - has been woven into the artwork in the form of rubber floats made of flip flops.
These floats, spilling with contradictions, are powerful: a tool to prevent drowning has been made from a universal symbol - a flimsy flip flop - of holidaying. It refutes the claim that refugees relocate out of anything other than desperation.
Like for those fleeing their homes, our lives cannot always be mapped out. The project, for instance, has continually altered: the structure of the sculpture has been improvised, changing with the input of residents. Likewise, life isn't fixed - it can change at any moment, beyond our control. We, like Alwin, need to approach it with a degree of flexibility - we need to adapt and improvise. We need to relinquish this idea of total control.
A troop of helpers have contributed to the artwork: from children in the neighbourhood to the Philippine community.
“I like the idea," Alwin said, "of weaving strands of cultural strengths. I've never felt like a stranger here [in Burnley].”
Janet Windley, of Action Factory, the arts organisation hosting the project at Canalside Community Centre, said: “In this area the Asian and white communities have mixed in well. During the riots, everyone helped out."
Power of communities
Likewise, the project is open to contributions from anyone and everyone.
“We’re in a situation," Alwin said, on the matter of politics, "where people feel powerless because of decisions being made that they can’t do anything about. But that’s a myth. We can have an influence, even as individuals. But we need others. That’s where communities come in. We start with ourselves and then we turn to others.
“In early generations, people lived without much in abundance but always made things. They’d grow their own food, for example. But today many people are just consumers, feeling powerless. So we need to develop a new way of looking at life.
“We’re trying to go back to the idea of the community being active and of the government just supporting us, not the other way around.”
He pointed to the example of the Canalside Community Centre: "It's an underused space but the project has charged it up."
And it's the community, not the government, fuelling that fire.
“Hunting and gathering”
Alwin creates his art by “hunting and gathering”. It’s a matter of foraging for discarded items, recycling or fixing them, and bringing people together.
Shards of plastic, for example, have been pinned together to make turbines that double up as decorative flowers.
“Trash” isn’t a part of Alwin’s vocabulary. Everything, he believes, has value, even when the original purpose has been worn out.
It’s a philosophy that can be applied to people.
Everyone – no matter their differences – has something to offer. A person cannot be ruined: life is not that final. You can always redirect your life journey, redefine your identity or recycle your ambitions. To do that, we must learn new ways of living: we need to observe and reach out to others.
In its wider context, Alwin explained, the artwork is a microcosm of political healing: society isn’t broken beyond repair; the system isn't destined for the junk-yard; what is needed is a course of upcycling. And, in some cases, our scraps of communities need to be rewoven.
The artwork is a spirit shrine, a symbol of healing, on both a personal and societal level. Chimes were made, for example, for soothing sounds while the whole sculpture will function like a lantern.
“It's important to make things with your hands,” Alwin said, as you do with art.
Doing something physical distracts your mind, the action becoming a dam that helps you to manage your flow of mental energy by refocusing it and freeing you up for calm reflection and balanced judgement.
Role of art
The sculpture's political dialogue about communities is also concerned with the role of art.
“Sometimes, art is mediated in institutional spaces, which can be limited,” Alwin said, pointing to the example of museums. “But we’re trying to help bring it back to the community. We want to create something accessible.
“As a society we often elevate it - it becomes a function of power, dictating taste. Sometimes," as in a museum, "you read about a piece before engaging with it. There is still value in such spaces but they shouldn't be the only mediations."
“We want people to be in the habit of asking questions, instead of simply accepting information. Art should compel us to be curious.
After all, “it demonstrates the wish and will of the people to resolve conflict. It’s a form of expression demonstrating your autonomy and individuality."
By engaging with art, therefore, "we become active members, not just sheep, which benefits society.”
"Creativity" he added, "offers many possibilities," so it "gives power back to the individual."
And perhaps there is no better vehicle for peacefully encouraging people to adopt a healthy attitude towards change than a medium inspiring wonder at the things greater than ourselves, acceptance of life's intricacy and curiosity towards the unknown. It's a medium through which subjectivity can trump control. In this way, art helps us to develop security in our own sense of self by helping us to see, and find the positive in, our current limitations. Because, paradoxically, if we were all-knowing then we would certainly be limited - subjectivity means there's never a cap on our potential for growth.
The artwork will be carried from the town centre to the Straight Mile where it will be released on the canal at dusk on Friday. Volunteers are required. Meet at 6pm at the Canalside Community Centre car park, Lindsey Street.
After the procession there will be a feast and musical entertainment.
Alwin will be in residence until Sunday.
For more details or to volunteer, please visit www.superslowway.org.uk or www.action-factory.org, ring 07950 111 955 or email [email protected]