The Secret Self(ie) Project (TSSP)

At MK Gallery

The Secret Self(ie) Project (TSSP) is a new young people’s project, generously funded by MK Community Foundation as part of the 2018 #iwill youth action campaign and until 2020 by Children in Need. The programme builds upon the success of Lost&Found, MK Gallery’s pioneering youth-led programme which ran from 2007 – 2014.

Lost&Found (L&F) supported personal exploration and empowerment through music, performance, film and events and provided an opportunity for young people to take seemingly impossible ideas and follow them through to reality. The spirit of L&F has influenced our organisational thinking and aspirations, setting a framework for how we can create life-changing encounters through the arts. Since L&F went on hiatus in 2014, concerns of young people have radically changed and TSSP represents a concerted effort to readdress topical and urgent issues relevant to today’s youth. Using lessons learned from Lost&Found, our priority remains to affect young lives in a way that empowers individuals through the arts at the same time enabling our youth programme to be entirely reinvented as a fresh entity by a new generation.

360 degree image, courtesy of Andy Abbott

This year we have focused on supporting the development of a core group of participants who are keen to lead this process. A large proportion of preparatory time was committed to working with our partner organisation MK Youth Faculty through a relationship built over the past 18 months. This process led to a group of young people visiting the Gallery for the first time, introducing it as a ‘safe space’ and providing a base for the TSSP group. Publicity was shared through MK’s schools network, relevant local organisations such as MK Youth Information Service and Q:AllianceMK and through a public open information event. As we have learned from previous work though, there is no substitute for word of mouth and young people themselves are a project’s most important advocates. We know that building a strong team of participants doesn’t happen overnight and that now we have built a solid core group we must work with them to promote participation. This approach makes it essential that we maintain relationships which lead through to next summer and beyond and that young people are provided the opportunity to connect regularly between now and then. As we learned from L&F though, a slow, patient build is actually essential to the cascaded form of informal mentoring that is central to such projects and brings together a supportive cycle of participation.

As we have learned from previous work though, there is no substitute for word of mouth and young people themselves are a project’s most important advocates.

Dave Ronalds
MK Gallery

Across summer 2018 TSSP’s base was from MK Gallery’s Project Space as a ‘youth takeover’ project. Young people were provided the space to rethink and remodel the entire space according to their own wishes or needs. This developed organically week on week, with the space coming to represent a map of activities over the six week period. Sessions were run on a ‘drop in’ basis, with young people encouraged to attend as and when they felt able. Each week consisted of three days contact/workshop time with artists followed by an opportunity to share the results of the week’s activities through an exhibit or event open to the public. Associate Artists were provided the potentially tricky brief of presenting a loose framework for activity under the proviso that should young people want to take things in a different direction, they must be willing and able to react promptly and imaginatively according to their wishes. In this way, the framework was radically different from a structured session and in practice situated the artists somewhere in-between ‘provocateurs’ and companions.

Participants at a Lost&Found event at MK4U Festival, 2008. Image courtesy of Craig Short.

Active ‘making / thinking’ time with opportunities for sharing and discussion were important of course, but we encouraged artists to place equal emphasis on simply ‘hanging out’. These totally informal encounters were absolutely essential in beginning to build trust and inspire agency. This approach encouraged anecdotal storytelling around life experiences or casual conversation around art practice. Artist-provocateurs were purposely selected from a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences and mediums with the expectation that they should surprise participants with the range of what can constitute an ‘artistic experience’ and open minds to new, accessible and inspiring possibilities. Our young people were taken through a journey that encompassed mapping the city, public sculpture, choreography, film-making, sound installation, ‘youth utopias’, 360’ photography, VR and forming a band. Throughout this journey they were supported by a small team of youth mentors drawn from the gallery’s Lost&Found alumni, who were able to come at the role from a history of ‘lived experience’ and a long-term relationship with the staff team.

Image courtesy of Emilia Zyclinska

In order to maintain momentum with our core group of young people we will immediately be engaging them to work with artist and illustrator Tom Guilmard on branding and visual identity for future young people’s projects. They have accepted responsibility for managing a budget and negotiating a contract with the designer and will work with him independently towards a final design. Resulting literature will be used to welcome further young people and promote similar future opportunities.

With young people and organisational aspirations in mind TSSP has also provided the opportunity to act as a ‘test bed’ for longer-term ambitions by involving young people in the Gallery’s current expansion and beyond. By exploring with them what a ‘safe space’ for today’s young people looks like we are provided the opportunity to reshape and rethink our learning programmes in a process that places young people central to the decision-making process. Throughout TSSP we have been creating regular opportunities for the group to think ambitiously around topics that reflect both their needs and those of a wider youth community and are constantly threading lessons learned from our young people into a vision for the future.

Image courtesy of Roisin Callaghan

It has been amazing to witness the transformation in our participants over the summer. In many cases, they came to us withdrawn and with little confidence, but by September we were blown away to see them talking so confidently about their activities in front of gallery staff and parents. Many had been experiencing feelings of social exclusion, but through working together they created a huge bond, messaging each other in the evenings and hanging out together between sessions. From this supportive environment they became confident decision makers and communicators with a number of parents feeding back their thanks and the positive changes that they have observed over the summer.

Image courtesy of Lydia CS

Initially attendance was low, but we soon learned that this was part of the unpredictability of the summer period. The positive side to any quieter days was that we were able to focus attention on individuals who required greater support, and this paid off in the long run, with some of our more withdrawn becoming those most engaged. We suspect that had the space been busy from day one, many of our core participants simply would have struggled to stay and on reflection the pace and slow build enabled us to cater to individuals and their particular needs. At the same time we were able to build towards a bigger group which felt more inclusive than it might otherwise have been.

We found that a varied mix of artists produced a different feel and dialogue week on week. Some were particularly vibrant, others more subdued, but in particular those who worked with the young people to push the envelope unlocked a sense of ambition and aspirational thinking that grew throughout the project. They were totally inspired by working with Luke Webb from Action Beat for example. Many of them had never picked up an instrument before, but by the end of the week they wouldn’t put the guitars down. Luke, actually a primary school teacher by day, adopted an approach whereby he felt more like their accomplice and this helped to galvanise a sense of shared experience and common ground.

Maintaining momentum is going to be key to the overall success of the youth programme as a whole. We already know that repeat positive experiences are vital for lasting change, so we are working with the young people to develop, and fund, a programme of regular activity whereby their needs and ambitions are paramount. Next year’s Secret Self(ie) will form just part of this and we anticipate that individuals are unlikely to return in ‘a good place’ unless we continue to nurture our relationship with them.

Dave Ronalds
Freelance Programme Manager (Young People)
MK Gallery | @MK_Gallery