ISSUE 12.4

What is a “Community Arts Tour?”

This is where your sub-head goes

Students at Concordia University's Theatre and Development program welcome Train of Thought to Montreal, Mohawk Territory. Photo by Liam Coo

Written by Sam Egan

In the past, the community-engaged artistic work of Jumblies Theatre—-and that of many companies working in a similar mode—-has often relied on long residencies allowing strong relationships to build between the company (and the artists it employs) and the community in which it resides. When successful, it is through these relationships that the artistic integrity of the project and value to its participants and community are ensured. The privilege of time was lost in our cross-country travelling project of 2015, Train of Thought, which by its nature could not dwell long in one place—-as the tour stopped in over twenty locations in less than two months.

My role in the production of Train of Thought began over the year previous to the tour, working as part of an ever-growing team wrestling with logistics of traversing a continent. I also joined the tour for most of its journey, trying to apply and adapt the plans we had crafted over the previous months. This was not always a propitious position from which to reflect on how Train of Thought engaged with the various artistic challenges posed by touring, but in hindsight it provides insight into Train of Thought’s conception of touring as a valuable artistic method.

In the planning of the tour, its form was intentionally ill-defined; this allowed it to be reactive, moulded by its travellers and what they uncovered on the journey. This fluidity in form may explain why, before setting out, I was often stumped when faced with the question, “What is Train of Thought?” In a vain bid to disguise my own ignorance, I often made recourse to the response, “It’s a community arts tour”; but this is an unsatisfying answer. Given Jumblies’ typical style of work—durational and local—and the absence of much precedent for touring a project of this kind, the phrase is unilluminating. Now that Train of Thought has made its own difficult journey from collective fantasy to shared reality, we can better attempt to describe it, as well as my woolly appellation.

Intuitively, it seems unnecessary to uproot a community project from the place that inspired it in order to tour it like a more conventional play. The production on tour is diminished in comparison to its home stand. For the touring of a community arts project to be warranted, the journey itself should influence what is being produced. This is not such a remote idea: one of the many pleasures of Train of Thought was the opportunity to share ideas across a geographically dispersed community of artists working on projects with common ideas and practices. In conversations, these luminaries frequently proposed the idea that a good community project’s final form is dictated by the process of its creation, or, as one of my fellow travellers phrased it, “If a project turns out how you imagined it before you started, you’ve done it wrong.”

Train of Thought satisfied this requirement in a novel way: the journey itself was part of the artistic creation and would adapt and react as it unfolded. This extends beyond the ongoing art activities that occurred while in transit, and defines the act of touring as an artistic product that is designed and curated by the artists engaged in the tour. Such a definition is not merely semantic: identifying the acts of travelling, extending and receiving hospitality, and sharing experience as a group as part of the creative process of Train of Thought allowed the tour to critically engage its themes in a unique way.

The importance of identifying the act of travelling as part of our creation is especially salient when considering the tour’s central theme of cross-cultural relations and (re)conciliation. The process of touring is naturally rich with host-guest relationships through which we could reflect on this theme. We saw this, for example, between, Jumblies Theatre and its partners: as the lead producer of the tour, Jumblies would provide a loose framework of what might occur at any given stop—ceremonies of arrival and departure, the sharing of food in a performative feast. The hosting partners freely interpreted and curated each stop, immersing travellers in these events on arrival. Another host-guest relation existed between local people and visitors: hosts acted as guides to their guests, sharing knowledge and understanding of their home and often going as far as to open their own homes to travellers. And, of course, there is the host-guest relationship between the First People of the land we traversed and those who have arrived more recently, whether through their own emigration or that of their ancestors. Navigating relationships between hosts and guests is not a simple task for all involved; travelling with or encountering Train of Thought provided the container for these relationships to develop and be explored in parallel with one another, with revelatory results.

In light of the proposed value and desirability of a “community arts tour,” it is (relatively) uncontentious to say that for the moniker to be accurate, the tour must work with a community. The idea of what constitutes a community is not similarly uncontroversial; however, Train of Thought engaged, in different ways, groups that could be labelled as “communities,” and each presents a challenge to what we might consider good community arts practice. First, there is the intentional community formed by the travellers and hosts who were most consistently involved in Train of Thought. From this perspective, artistic merit might be thought of as the way the tour provided travelers with an experience that extended beyond professional development or a networking opportunity: that is, how the shared experiences of travel and exploration built an ephemeral community. This is unusual for community arts, and perhaps is only available in the atypical situation of a tour. When a community arts project is resident in a single location, it is obliged to focus on the people who live currently in that place; when travelling, that obligation is inverted, providing an exciting and uncommon angle for the examination of what community is and could be. The rootlessness of a tour could risk diminishing the relevance of the work “produced.” The political and social power of community arts lies in its ability to respond to extant communities and their own challenges; therefore, the value of the development of an internal community, as seemed to happen during Train of Thought, is somewhat limited to the extent to which its outcomes can be externalized.

We planned to invite local participants to join the Train at every stop of the tour. It quickly became apparent that in order to make this invitation meaningful, it would have to be extended through Jumblies’ local partners, who were at home in places unfamiliar to Jumblies and much of the travelling party. Each community prepared for the arrival of Train of Thought, and the form of the tour responded to the outcome of these preparations. From this point of view, a community arts tour can be seen as a succession of responses to a question proposed by the tour’s creators. Indeed, Train of Thought defined a set of questions to explore-—of the land, the people, and the possibilities for the future—-which were deemed vital enough to warrant such a great undertaking.

This structure does offer challenges that the tour’s designers and travellers must respond to. First, how can we meaningfully share ownership of a tour with local participants who will see it arrive and leave their home communities over the course of days? And second, how can the questions asked by the project be made relevant to a community that had no role in their curation? These issues are not unique to touring projects; community arts must often find the right balance between responsiveness to community and the creative will of the lead artists. It does seem, though, that the nature of touring exacerbates the challenge.

The continually evolving legacy of Train of Thought will go some way in demonstrating the value of the tour for the different communities it engaged. The central part of this legacy is the many relationships that grew out of the development and experience of the tour: between Jumblies and new partners, between travellers, between organizations and people in each place. In all cases, it seems improbable that these connections would have been forged in the absence of the tour. In seeding these relationships, Train of Thought becomes the earliest research phase of numerous projects across the country.

A final idea of community is contained within the proposition that all Train of Thought participants, and all possible participants, are joined in a common community. This is a potentially dangerous direction in which to travel for two reasons. First, it resembles the cultivation of national values and identity which have been, and continue to be, weapons of exclusion and oppression. We might imagine that on this scale a community arts tour can ask who the victims of this myth are and attempt to form relationships in spite of it. Beyond this, it is not the place of this kind of tour to arrogate the right to class and define its participants. Second, the idea of a common community risks detaching a project (whether a tour or otherwise) from localism, as it aims for a kind of universality. As discussed above, being grounded in what was local at each stop was vital in producing Train of Thought, and it seems, especially when touring across great distances, that if community art fails to do this, it risks becoming simply art with participation. However, it is possible to imagine circumstances in which this loss of localism is not a concern—and that it may even help to create a far-reaching community art that can act to reclaim art for people alienated from an increasingly rarefied “art world.” Where this is the case, it should be welcomed.

If, in the planning stage of Train of Thought, the absence of a precedent for touring community arts projects made it a challenge to define a “community arts tour,” with hindsight we can at least describe the term in the mould created by Train of Thought. Community art is foremost a method of creating meaningful, important art. In addition, and inherent to this production, is the lofty, thrilling, and always elusive goal of absolute inclusivity, and, often, the capacity for radical social change. A community arts tour is a corollary to this. The tour aspires to be a valuable creative product in and of itself, and one that realizes a number of other achievements along the way: forging new alliances across great distances and differences; seeding many new projects; showcasing the artwork of dozens of artists across various mediums and an entire country; providing a rare opportunity for emerging artists to work intensively with their well-established peers; creating a space to examine, share, and propagate vital ideas; and exploring the limitations, flaws, power, and value of the many definitions of community.

At time of print, Sam Egan was operations coordinator for Jumblies Theatre, an interdisciplinary community-engaged artist and administrator whose practice is informed by his training as a chemist, and his experience in and passion for management, social activism, and artful sign-making. He helped to build the foundation for Jumblies’ Four lands tour, which will draw upon the ideas and relationships developed through Train of Thought.

We acknowledge the support of