A project initiated by

Entelechy Arts

“What happens if you make visible people who are invisible?”

Entelechy was founded in 1989 as the company New Moves, on the request of Lewisham and North Southwark Health Authority, to support the reintegration of people with learning disabilities into the community following the closure of mental handicap asylums in South-East London. Based in an office at the Albany in Deptford, it has a core team of four, including founder artistic director David Slater, and works with approximately 35 freelance artists each year. The company has a turnover of approximately £250,000, receiving core funding from the London Borough of Lewisham and from Arts Council England as a National Portfolio Organisation, and generating additional income through trusts and foundations.

Mission: engineering creative collisions

There is a conceptual language for Entelechy’s practice to which David Slater is mostly resistant: words such as co-creation, which he avoids, or relational practice, which he will use only in formal settings. Entelechy’s aim is to bring people together – artists and “people who ordinarily don’t get to share the stage”, including the very elderly, and people with multiple disabilities – to see what sparks from the points of connection. In particular the company is driven by the question: “What happens if you make visible people who are invisible?”

The company aims to work with the same people for extended periods of time, accompanying them as they experience change in their lives, whether adapting to the ageing body or habituating to absence following a death. Slater argues: “It’s those moments where you most need that parallel process with making an artwork. The creating of work with others, creating opportunities to reimagine who you are – the creativity is instrumental in supporting the possibility for change.”

A body of trust

Entelechy’s work begins with the development of relationships of trust: an investment of time framed as “deep hanging out” which creates the possibility of working “across generations, across particular needs, and across different cultural experiences, in exciting and dangerous ways”. Although “fiercely local” in its provision, it has an international perspective, with Slater quoting three Brazilian concepts when describing the company’s work:

  1. Imagination at the service of the people

One of Entelechy’s most successful projects to date, Meet Me at the Albany, began with a simple set of questions: “What are we going to do about isolated older people in Lewisham? What role could culture have in supporting their needs or the Local Authority’s needs?” Meet Me takes place 50 weeks of the year in the cafe at the Albany, with an open invitation to elderly people to work with artists and volunteers to make and do.

The project exposed several structural reasons why elderly people might not have been using the arts centre: the chairs were unsuitable and needed to be changed, the toilets were inaccessible and needed adaptation. Many did not even know it was there. These issues resolved, it has proven so beneficial that Entelechy and the Albany are now working with the local authority to extend its provision across care homes and social housing settings, always with a view to  “exploring connections between people who live in the different units”.

  1. A process of uncovering

Through its long-term, trust-building relationships, its emphasis on listening and “finding collective meaning”, Entelechy discovers the preoccupations of its participants which in turn shape new work. Bed, a touring work for elderly performers, emerged from Meet Me at the Albany, and: “a group of older people saying, when we’re in public it’s like we’re invisible”. Bed is staged on public streets, and presented as an encounter with the real: passers-by stumble upon an elderly woman apparently homeless and without carers, and listen to her stories.

Another programme Entelechy runs at the Albany, Ambient Jam, is a fortnightly opportunity for adults and young people with profound and multiple disabilities – people who might not have access to linguistic self-expression – to work with dancers and musicians to communicate their selves. Slater emphasises that the benefits are not one-sided: “Working with people who are sensory skilled by necessity has given artist teams huge experience in making work in multi-sensory, cross-artform, improvised landscapes.”

  1. Points of culture

“We’re interested in the way that the local then becomes the national and international, through engineering these different encounters”

In Brazil, the “Pontos de Cultura” are “particular points where things happen, where you’re creating energy”. In a UK context, these might be the lounge of a care home, a library, or the cafe of an arts centre: places where people can gather to discover “what are our social relationships to each other and how we grow into who we could become in the company of other people”.

Entelechy bring people together in these points of culture who might not otherwise meet. Its 21st Century Tea Dances are created by elders, but aimed at cross-generational attendees. It has also built collaborations between local elderly groups and communities of older people in the north of England, in LA, and in Brazil: “We’re interested in the way that the local then becomes the national and international, through engineering these different encounters.”

The ordinariness of art

When Slater first began working in the 1970s, it was primarily with older people, some born in the Victorian era, who told stories in which dance was integral to gatherings and a piano would be wheeled into the street for parties. This could be dismissed as rosy nostalgia – or read as descriptions of a time in which art and culture were not extraordinary but everyday. Barriers, as Slater sees them, arise when art is not seen as ordinary:

1: Project funding

“If it is really going to make a change then by definition you can’t predict that”

Creativity is innate to humanity: or, as Slater argues, “We’ve been dancing since the beginning of time, and if that’s not a longitudinal case study then what is?” Project funding is anathema to Entelechy’s way of working, putting a time-limit on the benefits of participation and breaking trust with participants, as they see programmes they rely on disappear. It also creates unrealistic expectations among funders, of quick and quantifiable outcomes: “What art is doing is conjuring stuff out of thin air and exploring the shape and form of how can we can collectively be together. If it is really going to make a change then by definition you can’t predict that – but if you don’t know what the outputs are going to be, how can you ask for money for it?”

2: Problems of connection

Entelechy’s work relies on a foundational set of “creative collisions”: partnerships between the company, health services, housing providers, charities, arts organisations and local authorities, whose collaboration “creates a space for imagination”. But all of these are vulnerable to political shifts, economic pressures on formal care structures, and changing language in relation to well-being. On the one hand, Slater recognises a responsibility when working with the vulnerable, of “dealing with issues that are to do with dignity or inappropriate care”. On the other, he sees “a danger with the language of art and health, that the creative community are invited to collude in propping up quite damaging systems, like the way that we warehouse our oldest citizens in care homes”. Collaboration offers solutions to both problems, but relies on time and money to be effective.

What next?

Ultimately Slater’s ambition is a wholesale return to the ordinariness of art, “so that people can grow up with an artist at the end of the street, the same as you grow up with a GP at the end of your street”. This provision is already present for the affluent: he points to the South Bank, where there are audiences who access “a very great number of cultural activities each month: it’s just what they do, it’s part of their landscape”. What Slater wants to see is a society in which this is everyone’s landscape, because “we all need culture: it’s a human need”.

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