‘Laboratories of Fun’ – Fun Palaces Weekend 2015

The 3rd and 4th October 2015 saw the second ever Fun Palaces weekend. Under the banner of ‘Everyone an artist, everyone a scientist’, the idea for Fun Palaces was developed in the 1960s by the radical theatre maker Joan Littlewood, in collaboration with the architect Cedric Price.

The Fun Palaces they wanted to create were never realised. But in 2014, twelve years after Littlewood’s death, Stella Duffy and a small number of collaborators succeeded in bringing the idea to life, with 138 Fun Palaces created across the UK. There was considerable diversity across these sites, consistent with the spirit of the project:

The principles are that each Fun Palace is Free, Local, Innovative, Transformative and Engaging. […] Fun Palaces are about creating and making together: they are a space where arts and sciences, fun and learning meet, working alongside and working together. […] You can make or join a Fun Palace in whatever way best suits you and your neighbours; with play, experiments, stories and discovery. High art and hard science are as welcome as the fun and the games. Each Fun Palace is unique, self-generating, self-supporting and local. Some may just be moments, some may last the whole weekend.

Duffy has written about the history of the idea of the Fun Palace and about the process of bringing the idea to life. This contemporary realization of Littlewood’s project maintains the boldness of that original vision. Fun Palaces has a manifesto:

We believe in the genius in everyone, in everyone an artist and everyone a scientist, and that creativity in community can change the world for the better. We believe we can do this together, locally, with radical fun – and that anyone, anywhere, can make a Fun Palace.

The ambitions of Fun Palaces goes significantly beyond the aims of increasing ‘access’ – and many of the visions of participation – that characterize predominant approaches to arts and cultural ‘outreach’. The Fun Palace vision of “radical fun” is one which the creators and participants are one and the same. Community is a keyword for Fun Palaces. But precisely in the sense that Fun Palaces would in and of themselves constitute the generating of a community – whether or not a pre-existing ‘community’ brought that Fun Palace into being.

The Fun Palaces project may have been first dreamed of 50 or 60 years ago, but there are important respects in which its ambitions have never been timelier. As discussed in my previous post on the emergence of a field of ‘amateur creativity’ research, there is growing academic interest in ‘amateur’, ‘grassroots’ or ‘democratized’ creativity. But these developments are not only observable within research. In potentially significant ways, we may also be witnessing shifts within cultural policy and cultural practice. From Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places programme, to the plethora of projects across community arts, voluntary arts, and education and outreach initiatives, there seems to be a growing (and potentially consequential) interest in the current and future diversity of ‘participation’ in the arts and culture.

How do Fun Palaces fit within this fast developing situation? I was keen to experience one for myself, and so on Saturday 3rd October I visited the Fun Palace closest to where I live, at the Arts Depot in North Finchley, North London. Arriving by public transport, getting off the bus around the corner from the arts centre, I could hear the Fun Palace before I saw it. As I turned off the High Street into the slip road where the Arts Depot is located, I found a performer, Stefano Di Renzo, working with a system of ropes and pulleys erected outside the main entrance. I arrived just as this performance was ending – with the Di Renzo drawing a member of the watching crowd into the show, asking him to hold the ropes, then going inside the foyer of the building for a few moments, leaving the man ‘holding the reins’.

Located out in the street, this performance was highly visible to passers-by. The sound of the performance carried out into the High Street, and two young people stood nearby handing out leaflets about the Fun Palace. The performance had a ‘spectacular’ aspect, as its ropes and scaffolding made for a striking physical presence in the public space. Each of these features seemed designed to draw people towards (and into) the building – and it appeared to be achieving some success in doing so, with a crowd gathering around the performance, directly in front of the main entrance.

Moving inside the building, the Arts Depot very much has the feel of a community resource. The escalators from the main entrance take you into a wide open-plan area with a number of tables in the centre. This is the hub of the building, in which there is a café serving drinks, snacks and sandwiches. From this central area there are several doors and walkways to studio and performance spaces. I noticed that at one table two local councillors were sitting – with signs identifying them as the representatives of local wards – holding a Saturday surgery. The space feels very accessible and open, very family friendly, and not necessarily a ‘transactional’ space in which you would need to buy something in order to be there.

During my three hour visit, this space was very well populated throughout – particularly with family groups, with lots of prams and young children. There was also a sizeable group of young people gathered around one table. This central part of the building was very lively, and the use of the space was very fluid, with chairs being borrowed and moved from one table to another, children running around and balloons bouncing about and bursting.
As part of the Fun Palace event, children were well catered for in this space, with a station in which they were invited to dress up in a range of costumes and take a photo. On the floor above there was an exhibition presenting ‘inventions of the future’ drawn by local school children – a display specifically put on for the Fun Palaces weekend. Examples of these inventions included a ship that would help clean the seas by attracting pieces of plastic, and a device that would prevent mobile phones being used in cars.

But it was not only children who had the opportunity to join in with the Fun Palace activities. A dance workshop for people of all ages, for example, was facilitated by two local dance groups who work with people over 50. This was my chance to throw some shapes, and I took to the floor of the Arts Depot’s main theatre space with around 20 other participants. We first got into pairs and walked around the dancefloor, learning three things about each other as we walked, getting to know our fellow movers and shakers. We then shared what we had learned about each other with the rest of the group, before the dancing itself began.

We followed the workshop leader in a series of steps, hops, turns and reaches. In my early 20s I joined a beginners’ ballet class at The Place, having got seriously into ballet and contemporary dance as an audience member, and wanting to know what it felt like. Having found out what it feels like for me – part of which was to fairly swiftly hit a robust ceiling in my balletic capabilities – I concluded I’d succeeded in having the experience I was looking for. Finding myself in this comparable but quite different dance situation some years later, it felt immediately pretty joyful to be joining in a series of simple moves (roughly) in time with the music, the leader and the other participants. I immediately found myself thinking, “why don’t I do this more often?”

Offering a ‘taster’ of an experience such as this was clearly an aim of this Fun Palace, giving participants the opportunity to try something new, and to be connected with an organisation through which to try the activity again. The dance workshops also served to draw attention to upcoming events – in particular, the performances being given by the two over-50s dance groups in February 2016. These performances are being developed jointly between the two companies over a number of months, and have a focus on the cultural contributions to the UK that have been made by migrants to this country. Leaflets advertising these performances were distributed at the end of the workshop.

As well as these turn-up-and-join in participatory workshops, this Fun Palace also gave opportunities for pre-rehearsed performance. In the main café space, during what was perhaps the peak hour of the Arts Depot Fun Palace, an ‘open-mic’ style event took place, with around five young people singing from a stage that had been set up with microphones and a sound mixing desk. They each sang for about 10 minutes, singing their own compositions or covers of well-known songs. These performances had been programmed by the Arts Depot’s Young Person’s Panel. This is a group of 13 – 25 year olds who meet every two weeks at the Arts Depot to gain experience of different aspects of working in the arts, from technical skills – such as working on light and sound desks – to programming and running events.

On this occasion the Young Person’s Panel had being asked what contribution they would like to make to the Fun Palace and came up with the idea for an open-mic session. They then publicised the event, auditioned and interviewed prospective participants, and undertook the practical work of arranging this part of the day. The performances included two sisters singing a range of songs together, with one playing an acoustic guitar; and solo performances of Radiohead and Disney numbers, accompanied by backing tracks. The final act during the hour was a young man’s spoken word performance on the theme of love.

These performances were taking place in the ‘hub’ of the building. People were coming in and out, toddlers were running about, balloons were being burst, people were chatting, whilst others appeared to be listening more concentratedly. These performances, held within an informal space – a space that was also the building’s thoroughfare – allowed for the co-existence of a wide range of modes of engagement, consistent with Littlewood’s original intentions for Fun Palaces, encouraging people to:

Choose what you want to do – or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.

The Arts Depot Fun Palace also gave artists who seek to earn a living through their practice the opportunity to present and discuss their work. An artist with a long term project on consciousness displayed her work and held a question-and-answer session about her practice. In these ways, the Fun Palace spanned a range of participatory and presentational modes, including ‘community arts’ activities – in which professional artists lead participation; the presentation of work by artists who have been to art school and make a living through their art and related activities; and performance, participation and display by people (including young people) who are not in any way ‘making a living’ from these activities.

The range of activities taking place across the building – and the programming of performances, presentations and workshops across the bustling, open, sometimes slightly chaotic spaces of the Arts Depot – exemplified the opportunity for serendipity that Stella Duffy has pointed out as an important part of the idea of the Fun Palace. Speaking on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme the day before the 2015 Fun Palace weekend, she explained that part of Joan Littlewood’s idea for Fun Palaces was that they would be spaces in which people would happen upon activities they would not necessarily have tried before.

A steward that I got chatting to indicated that this was an unusually busy Saturday for the organisation, strongly indicating that the Fun Palace had been a success in drawing people into the building. On a typical Saturday there would be some classes, but not nearly as wide a range of activities taking place. There may have been people there who read about the Fun Palace online and came specifically. Others may have wandered in off the street. Parents may have brought their children as a place to run around in for an hour or two after Saturday morning shopping, whilst some people may have been there to see friends or family perform.

Exploring people’s reasons for being there, the experiences they had, what implications these experiences might have for their future creative practice, and what modes of ‘community’ did or could emerge from this Fun Palace would of course require further, detailed research. But even through this single visit a number of the key features of the Fun Palace vision were exemplified in very interesting ways – raising questions that connect directly with the central concerns of the Get Creative Research Project.

The Arts Depot Fun Palace was just one of the 142 that took place over the weekend of 3rd – 4th October 2015. But what this example raises, again, is the importance of addressing the conditions which enable, motivate and/or constrain cultural and creative practice. We need to ask:

  • Which conditions / environments / spaces / resources offer what kinds of opportunity for discovering / getting involved with / developing what kinds of creative activities?
  • For who?
  • How?
  • With what consequences?

The Fun Palaces project – by inviting people to respond in their own ways to a vision of locally generated, inclusive, “radical fun” – encourages the exploration of these questions in practice. After all, Littlewood referred to them as “laborator[ies] of fun”. In this way, the Fun Palace project constitutes a significant part of that set of interrelated shifts, described above, towards new modes of ‘participatory’, ‘democratic’ cultural and creative practice in the UK.

The questions that Fun Palaces helps bring in to focus – concerning the conditions that motivate, enable and or/constrain cultural and creative practice, and the social consequences of these conditions – are central to the Get Creative Research Project. Over the coming weeks, as we begin our ethnographic fieldwork across ten sites of creativity, these questions will be at the forefront of our minds. The answers we are able to provide to these questions will be amongst the most important contributions this research project will make.

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One Response to ‘Laboratories of Fun’ – Fun Palaces Weekend 2015

  1. Pingback: Towards a Community of ‘Amateur (/Everyday) Creativity’ Research? (II) | Get Creative Research

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